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This Bitter Earth by Harrison David Rivers – White Bear Theatre

For a majority of us in the UK, the whole Black Lives Matter movement was probably something we were not really aware of until the murder of George Floyd in 2020. But, in the USA, the movement had been in existence years before thanks to the number of black men who had been murdered and then denied the justice they deserved. And #BLM is a central theme around which Harrison David Rivers has woven his story of inter-racial love in This Bitter Earth which is getting its UK premiere at the White Bear Theatre.

This Bitter Earth
This Bitter Earth.

Jesse (Martin Edwards) and his partner Neil (Max Sterne) are a typical gay couple in many ways. They have a nice middle-class life with their apartment and each other to keep them happy. Like many couples, they have much in common but also things that set them apart from each other. Jesse is a writer who got through college on a scholarship, whilst Neil, backed up by his trust fund, can be anything he wants. They met at a protest march where Neil, a white man with a megaphone, surprised Jesse by quoting “queer, black poet genius” Essex Hemphill. Initially, Jesse thinks that this is the most blatant case of cultural appropriation imaginable, but he realises Neil is sincere in saying what he believes, and this forges a connection between the two that blossomed into a romance and ultimately love. They are both aware of the world outside their home and also know of the various killings that have happened to young black men who happened to be, according to the authorities, in the wrong place at the wrong time and have paid with their lives. Neil is surprised that, as a black man, Jesse is not more outraged by this and seems almost apathetic to the whole Black Lives Matter movement. While he goes off to support the movement and the grieving communities, Jesse remains at home working and getting on with life.

Before going into the production itself, I feel I have to mention the programme. As well as the usual biographical information, there are also a couple of pages that detail not only the various murders referred to in the play but also the truly horrific statistics around hate crimes in the USA. It does not make easy reading, but I would recommend you try.

On paper, the relationship between Jessie and Neil really shouldn’t work, or be believable to an audience. Jesse, from the Deep South with a Baptist upbringing, is an African American budding writer with no real interest in political activism, while Neil comes from a wealthy family with uber-liberal parents, a roving eye, and a sense that activism is not only important but essential to get change. But somehow, the relationship does work and the two characters do feel like a pair of men who could have met under unusual circumstances and fallen in love. What was very interesting for me was how Neil changed throughout the story. Initially earnest and wanting to help, he eventually has his eyes opened and realises just how much being white and wealthy has and still does give him a privileged place in the world.

Martin Edwards and Max Sterne are perfectly cast as Jesse and Neil respectively. Edward’s Jesse is gentle, slow and laid back for much of the play but, as events unfold and Jesse can no longer just put them aside as things happening to others, the emotions really build and eventually explode. Also, and no spoilers, but there is nothing more likely to make me empathetic with a character than genuine emotion and Jesse’s final scene is so full of it that I was wiping a tear from my eyes by the end. Superb work from Edwards. Neil, as portrayed by Sterne was in some ways a bit like Tigger from the Winnie the Pooh books, if Tigger was a political animal. Bouncy, enthusiastic, and ready to leap into action. Sterne really brings over Neil’s outrage at what is happening and willingness, almost eagerness, to get involved. I was left wondering how much of Neil’s actions were based on his actual beliefs and how much – initially at least – was a drifting rich kid looking for a cause to occupy them. Either way, it was an excellent performance and when paired with Edwards, made Jesse and Neil a genuine couple in love and living the highs and lows of their lives.

Harrison David Rivers tells Jesse and Neil’s story in a series of non-linear way scenes and initially, that was slightly confusing and, if I’m honest, a bit irritating. But, I can understand why it was written this way and while as a way of telling the story it is not my favourite, ultimately it did work. Director Peter Cieply and Movement director Gareth Taylor make excellent use of Isabella Van Braeckel’s writer’s study set complete with two large foam blocks that get moved around to add to the various locations Neil and Jesse inhabit.

Overall, This Bitter Earth is a very interesting play that really made me sit up and think. Not only about the horrendous extrajudicial murders of black men and women in the USA but also about my own actions and feelings. I was able to relate to both characters, and especially Neil as he realises exactly the positive advantage his skin colour gives him. The show is around eighty minutes long and, while a couple of the scenes felt a bit forced in places, it works as a story of love and relationships in a colliding world of race and colour.

4 stars

Review by Terry Eastham

The beginnings of the Black Lives Matter movement. Neil is a White activist from a privileged background. Jesse is an introspective Black writer, reluctant to join any cause. As tensions mount with the extrajudicial killings of Black men throughout the US, the two men are forced to navigate the politics of their love and find their voices in a turbulent time. Wrestling with issues of race and class, love and loss, this moving and timely story is a haunting reminder of the strength it takes to live out loud.

Storefront Theatre London & Sarah Lawrie present the UK premiere of
This Bitter Earth
by Harrison David Rivers
Directed by Peter Cieply

21st February – 11th March 2023

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