As the world slowly begins to pull itself out of the abyss of the pandemic, the theatre world is following suit. The concept of outdoor productions is being discussed for this summer, and the idea of indoor theatre perhaps returning in the fall or winter is a hope. Thankfully until then we have streaming art to enjoy. The Road Theatre Company’s latest production, Harrison David Rivers’ This Bitter Earth, is a step closer to a traditional theatrical experience, in that each show is a live feed from the theater at a set time. The show benefits from strong, emotionally resonant performances from its talented duo of actors, and subject matter relevant to our current times, but unfortunately the play itself isn’t quite as effective.
Production photos by Lizzy Kimball.
In the mid-2010s, African-American playwright Jesse (Matthew Hancock) and white political activist Neil (Chase Cargill) meet and fall for each other. Over the next several years their relationship progresses, from moving in together to meeting each other’s parents. One continuing point of the conflict for the couple, however, is that Neil has become a Black Lives Matter activist, and in the escalating tension of the times, he can’t understand why Jesse won’t join him in attending protests.
Hancock gives a detailed, convincing performance as the somewhat emotionally bottled-up Jesse, deadpan nonchalance and humor serving as the character’s armor against the world. That being said, when Jesse’s emotions break out, they break out in a big way, and Hancock is very effective at showing the character’s fury as well. Cargill expertly captures his character Neil’s combination of energetic enthusiasm and guilt, at times romantically cajoling or politically carping, in his attempts to get Jesse to open up. Cargill is especially good in an excruciating scene in which Neil passionately attempts to “whitesplain” the importance of Barack Obama’s presidency to Jesse.
Director Gregg T. Daniel gets nuanced and moving work from his actors, but the staging is somewhat constrained due to the need to put the actors in one of several camera-covered areas. Derrick McDaniels’ lighting does yeoman work in creating the sense of different settings, as does Yasmine El-Tayeb’s sound design, although the use of an ominous bass rumble to denote bad things happening is perhaps over-relied upon.
Harrison David Rivers’ dialogue is smart and often funny, from the description of activist Neil never being happier than when hanging from a statue at a rally to Jesse’s salutation to Neil, “Good morning, Nicer White Person.” Rivers’ discussion of politics, history and poetry are incisive and interesting. The playwright seems most insightful in his thoughts on the complexities of racial and sexual issues, such as Jesse explaining that “black men don’t get me and I don’t get them” or that “white men are allowed to be soft,” whereas as an African-American man, sometimes “gentle gets you killed.”
Unfortunately, several of the playwright’s other choices make the play less successful. His decision to structure the scenes in a non-linear way, jumping back and forth in time, pays no discernible dividends. Rather, the device distances the love story of the main couple and dilutes the possibility of mounting dramatic tension. The use of many short vignettes as opposed to longer scenes doesn’t allow many of those moments to have enough time to register, and the frequent use of soliloquies seem like shoehorned-in information that might have served better within character interaction. Finally, if the playwright had a message or viewpoint to impart about these various serious subject matters, it doesn’t come through clearly, and if the show is just meant to be the study of a particular relationship, the play’s structural issues obstruct that focus.
This Bitter Earth, presented by The Road Theatre Company, is streaming on demand through April 30th. Tickets and show times are available at www.TheRoadTheatre.org.