Two main strands are interwoven in Harrison David Rivers’ This Bitter Earth, currently making its UK premiere at the White Bear Theatre, Kennington. It’s both a troubled interracial love story and a journey through events that gave rise to and reinforced the Black Lives Matter movement.
Interesting, but certainty not ground-breaking
The obvious alignment of Jesse (Martin Edwards) with the cause is here rejected. He’s a contemplative and thoughtful young black writer who can understand, almost, why people become embroiled in protests and campaigns, but political activism in simply not his thing. This is despite having been brought up in the south as a Baptist, the denomination that gave rise to Martin Luther King Jr. His parents embrace the happy-clappy form of Christian devotion, but he has no time for anything to do with their faith. He is immersed in his academic studies and enjoys the seclusion of the flat in which he can focus on his current project. Neil (Max Sterne), on the other hand, is a somewhat guilt-ridden young white man from a privileged background with very wealthy parents who paid for his exclusive education. He finds it difficult to understand Jesse’s position, but is not prepared to compromise on his commitment to attending protests in support of BLM. Their different temperaments and backgrounds inevitably make for upheavals in a relationship they both want to make work.
Apparently when the play opened in San Francisco in 2017, it received rave reviews and that appreciation has been sustained throughout it revivals across the USA. Acclaim on this side of the Pond is likely to be more muted. The play embraces some traditional narrative devices in a non-linear structure with flashbacks. At times these introduce an element of confusion as to where and with whom events are happening. The opening scene becomes a motif of words and movement that (unnecessarily) appears three times during the play and it doesn’t take a great deal of perception to work out the tragic ending from its first presentation. Hence there is a level of predictability about the entire plot. We hear Jesse’s refrain, “I’m the nicest person I know” a couple of times, introducing a level of narcissism that questions how anyone could ever live up to being his boyfriend. If we are in any doubt about the basis for his having a white partner he explains that black men have never learned how to be “soft”. Really? All black men? What that generalisation means is that he’s never found a black man as soft as himself, (and Edwards plays it very softly) but then Neil is hardly a prime example of gentleness. All white men are not “soft”.
The multiple scenes and locations make for much reorganising of the two large rather grubby-looking uncovered foam cuboids, on which you really wouldn’t want to have sex, but they do. The room is a standard home office where Jesse works on his laptop. It’s a suitably functional set from Isabella Van Braeckel that is enhanced by a lighting design by Chuma Emembolu who collaborated with Director Peter Cieply on the sound. Cieply makes good use of the limited stage space, but it’s surprising that in the tight confines of this cosy theatre the characters seems so distant. There’s a feeling that something is not right between Edwards and Sterne and their lack of chemistry makes emotional engagement difficult. They are not helped by trying to work in “American” accents, which sound bland and unconnected to any identifiable part of the country.
This Bitter Earth is interesting, but certainty not ground-breaking. Its attempt to show how external events can impinge on the everyday life of a couple is a worthwhile story, but here, perhaps connected with the adaptations to the original script for the UK market, it feels somewhat contrived and lacking in harmony.