Presented by TheatreWorks Hartford
By Harrison David Rivers
Directed by David Mendizábal
Fight and intimacy direction by Rocío Mendez
Live on stage: February 16 – March 20
Streaming: March 7-20
233 Pearl Street
Hartford, CT 06103
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Review by Kitty Drexel
Content warning: This Bitter Earth contains partial nudity as well as mature language and themes.
STREAMING ONLINE — This is a review for the pre-recorded, streamed version of This Bitter Earth.
Relationships are hard work. The kind of work a relationship requires depends upon the people in it. As the white person in a biracial relationship, you either educate yourself to understand the experiences of your partner of color, or you lose them. Your partner will either love you back by meeting you halfway with patience and sympathy, or they will lose you.
This Bitter Earth is the first play that I’ve seen in my ten years as a critic to specifically, comprehensively address the complex issues of a modern biracial relationship. Other plays have broached the subject; none have been as successful as This Bitter Earth.
I recognized the dynamics of my queer relationship with my spouse. We saw ourselves in this story. It was scary and refreshing.
Jessie (Damian Thompson) and Neil (Tom Holcomb) met in New York City after a rally for Trayvon Martin in 2012. Neil had a bullhorn and read into it a poem by Essex Hemphill. Jessie wondered where this fancy-ass white boy found the audacity to speak at a rally on behalf of Black people.
Jessie and Neil go from casually dating in New York to a confirmed couple in St. Paul, MN. We learn more about the dynamics of this couple, their ups and downs, in scenes between 2012 and 2015. They share an apartment and meet each other’s parents. They both learn what it means to show up to a long-term relationship as a new era for civil rights dawns.
Playwright Harrison David Rivers wrote an excruciatingly honest script. We watch both Jessie and Neil educate themselves on what it is to fully commit to loving another person. We see Neil reckon with his white guilt in environments where he is a minority. Jessie self-interrogates his reluctance to perform #BlackLivesMatter activism.
Then we see them dick around their apartment like kids. It’s cute. It twists the knife deeper when adversity eventually descends upon their relationship.
Director David Mendizábal smoothes the edges of Rivers’ play that don’t quite line up off the page. The play has excellent pacing. It is a complete work of theatre.
The streamed version of This Bitter Earth was filmed in front of a live audience. We didn’t notice any major disturbances, but the audience does laugh and occasionally murmur. It is an otherwise quiet performance.
It has many tight close-ups of both actors. (Thompson has beautiful teeth.) The camera gets close enough to the set that we can see the actors’ reflections in the bay window. If one thinks hard enough, their reflections are a metaphor for the audience’s inactive participation in their relationship. Perhaps society didn’t do anything to harm these gay men, but we didn’t do anything to help them either.
The partial nudity (underpants stay on) and sex acts depicted in this play are gay. This is a play about gay men. Thompson and Holcomb are consummate professionals. The intimacy direction by Rocío Mendez makes the sex scenes look safe, sane and consensual. The sex furthers the story. Anyone who is uncomfortable with gay sex, gay men having gay sex, or the allusion of gay sex of the gay variety should sit this gay one out.
Essex Hemphill, poet and activist, on ending his letters with his signature, “Take care of your blessings:”
“Some of us bake wonderfully, write, paint, do any number of things, have facilities with numbers that others don’t have. Those are your blessings. Some of us are very strong and candid and some of us are nurturers or combinations of all of those things. Just be aware of what your particular things are and nurture them and use them toward a positive way of living. That’s simply what I meant.”