Friday, May 4, 2018

This Bitter Earth is Honestly Bittersweet

It begins and ends with a bang. 


Photo by Allen Weeks

A broken bottle, a crumpled body, a shattered heart.

Photo by Allen Weeks

These events are the bookends of This Bitter Earth, a terrific new play by local playwright Harrison David Rivers that is currently showing at the Penumbra Theatre. A clear, modern, emotional, piece, This Bitter Earth tells the story of interracial queer love amidst all of the turmoil of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. It's a nuanced, painfully beautiful exploration of what it means to love outside the box these days, another gem in a string of lovely plays about interracial relationships gracing stages lately, and I couldn't love it more.

Photo by Allen Weeks

This Bitter Earth is hard to summarize because, as one character says in a eulogy at the end, there's *just so much.* The play jumps around between different vignettes at various points in time in the relationship between Jesse Howard and Neil Finley-Darden. Jesse is a black writer who is finishing his thesis in New York City and later becomes a writing teacher in Minnesota; Neil is a wealthy white man from New York City who becomes heavily involved in activism through BLM as his relationship with Jesse evolves. The two men have different life goals and priorities, and their relationship is never easy; but their ardent, consistent love for one another sustains them despite the fearsome obstacles to their love. Faced with everything from disapproving stares to verbal assaults to the final attack that takes Neil's life, Jesse and Neil find a way to celebrate life's most important things - beauty, love, equality, peace - and their example is a testament to us all.

Photo by Allen Weeks

There are only two actors to carry this show, and they are perfectly cast. Kevin Fanshaw plays Neil with a nuance that gives the character the full emotional breadth he deserves, and I was so impressed with his performance. It can be hard to talk about the personal experience of being a white ally in a way that respectfully does not eclipse or erase the experiences of people of color in the movement. Fanshaw's many monologues and asides on this subject beautifully capture this difficulty without cheapening his message, and I think they really nailed this issue. Jon-Michael Reese is simultaneously complex and layered as Jesse. His role equally explores diversity in racial advocacy - not all black people agree with or are involved in BLM, and they certainly don't need to be admonished on the experience of living as people of color under American racism. Reese's deft navigation of this conversation, which is subtle and hard and vital, completes a complex picture of this relationship. Above all, Fanshaw and Reese share a tenacious chemistry that is the cornerstone of all long-lived interracial relationships: if you can't have each other's backs even at home, how can you ever survive outside your private walls? Both of these actors are fairly new-to-me and I was floored by their impactful performances. There's a lot for anyone to learn here, and I thoroughly appreciate their refined acting.

Photo by Allen Weeks

The set designed by Maruti Evans is clean, modern and comfortable. It's a spot-on background for the difficult conversations taking place on stage, and is one of my favorite I've seen at the Penumbra. The costumes by Sarah Bahr are simple, believable, and changed with lightning speed as we quickly pass through different times and locations. The lighting is warm and elegant, and I loved the way lighting designer Marcus Dillard, projections designer Kathy Maxwell and sound designer Kevin Springer worked together to create instant ambiance no matter where the action is taking place. The projections were actually one of my favorite elements; often they can feel lazy to me, as a way to uncreatively replace sets, but these projections really enhance the significance of what the characters are saying (particularly a beautiful set of quotes by various black luminaries) and instantly set the location, saving time to focus on the plot itself. Overall, I think director Talvin Wilks really nailed the vision for this play; it's cohesive, modern and impactful without feeling overwrought.

Photo by Allen Weeks

I wrote more extensively of my experience in an interracial relationship in my review of Wedding Band (also at the Penumbra) last fall, and I don't want to repeat those thoughts here. There are extremely important differences and challenges faced by same-sex couples in interracial relationships, and I appreciated how fully This Bitter Earth explored them. My favorite element of this show, however, was its firm footing in modern life. The Loving vs. Virginia decision is only 50 years old this year, and the threats to interracial (and especially interracial same-sex couples) are very, very real even (or perhaps especially) in #liberal states like Minnesota. These threats have always been visible and challenging to those of us living through them, but I have to say that something even darker seems to have publicly raised its head amidst the political tumult of the last few years. If we want to create safer, more inclusive communities, it is vital that we address these threats and prejudices head on. This Bitter Earth beautifully encapsulates the hard conversations and experiences all interracial couples are having these days. It is heartbreakingly painful to watch but it is also searingly honest, and I really appreciate Harrison David Rivers' unflinching approach and willingness to invite everyone in to help them truly understand how much this problem matters.

Photo by Allen Weeks

As I've mentioned before, this has been an absolutely dynamite year so far in the #tctheater community. It's hard to feel like I'm raving about everything I see, but honestly there have been so many truly excellent shows gracing our stages! I'm happy to say that This Bitter Earth is yet another gem in this collection. The fact that it's written by a local playwright, features bright young stars, and tackles increasingly pressing social concerns with a deft hand is just icing on the cake. The Penumbra is having a dynamite season, and I encourage you to head to Kent Street to check out their work. Artistic Director Sarah Bellamy is so thoughtfully programming around hard conversations we all need to be having and experiences that are often left ignored, and I'm sure you'll find something to love in her choices. I encourage you to visit This Bitter Earth before it closes on May 20; click here for more information or to buy tickets. Please also reference their excellent study guide to the show and issues surrounding it by checking out their well-researched feature - click here.

Photo by Allen Weeks

And seriously, the Penumbra is killing it! Here are my thoughts on the shows I've seen from them so far the past couple years - all have been truly excellent.