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  WINDY CITY TIMES

'This Bitter Earth': LGBT play tackles class, race and political apathy
By Sheri Flanders
2018-10-31

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Political apathy has dire consequences for everyone, but especially for marginalized groups who bear the brunt of draconian conservative policies and police shootings.

So when a white gay activist confronts his mild-mannered Black boyfriend's lack of political engagement, love becomes very tricky, indeed.

This is the crux of the Chicago premiere of This Bitter Earth, produced by About Face Theatre. Written by Harrison David Rivers, ( winner of the McKnight Fellowship for Playwrights, a Jerome Foundation Many Voices Fellowship, an Emerging Artist of Color Fellowship, a Van Lier Fellowship and the New York Stage & Film's Founders Award ) and directed by Mikael Burke, ( winner of a 2017 Princess Grace Award Winner in Theatre and a recipient of the 2012 Robert D. Beckmann Emerging Artist Fellowship )—both Black queer men in interracial relationships—this non-linear love story follows two men who meet at a Black Lives Matter rally and explores the ways their relationship changes over the years, affected by the shifting political tenor of the United States.

Although not autobiographical, playwright Harrison David Rivers calls This Bitter Earth "the most personal of my plays." The play originated thanks to a commission from Ed Decker at the New Conservatory Theatre, seeking work that centered on Blacks in this country. After several drafts, a seminal moment in the development of the work occurred when Rivers realized that many of the characteristics of his own life were rarely portrayed onstage. This prompted him to begin writing from the heart, realizing that if he felt this way, others must as well.

Most of Rivers' work is about queer relationships, and This Bitter Earth is reflective of his mission to portray the specific dynamics of those relationships and the way that the world interacts with Black men with nuance. Although both characters in the play hold wildly different views on activism, Rivers deeply identifies with both. The Black character Jesse prefers to stand outside of the political maelstrom, often feeling as if he doesn't have anything to say, or feeling reluctant to place his body within the action.

As these emotions began to hit close to home, Rivers realized that the action of writing This Bitter Earth was indeed powerful activism. Neil, the white character, inspires passion and engagement, and is informed by Rivers view that true activism is showing up for your community when they need you. One need not always be a leader on the front lines, but one must be there somehow; in the group or behind the scenes.

For many years, Rivers didn't believe his writing was political. On the surface, his play And She Would Stand Like this is simply a retelling of The Trojan Women by Euripides. Yet through his lens of Black and Brown bodies moving through the world, the work is clearly political and prescient. Staged as members of a diverse family receiving a mysterious unnamed diagnosis, the varied reaction of the hospital staff to each family member comments on the way that marginalized groups interface with large and powerful organizations in healthcare and beyond.

This story, as does much of his work, is an extension of the experiences that the LGBTQ community is having—specifically those surrounding HIV/AIDS. Alarmingly, awareness seems to be dropping in importance, especially in communities of color where the disease is still decimating large numbers and healthcare is sorely lacking.

Rivers said he's excited to have This Bitter Earth staged with About Face Theatre, a company that has a reputation for championing challenging work by queer voices. His personal mandate is not only to shed light on these issues, but to make sure that his stories are the most deeply and thoroughly human he can possibly create, not steeped in stereotype like so many. In his plays, his characters can express love, anger, sadness and all of the emotions that makes us real in the deepest possible way.

As a child, Burke was fascinated with building worlds. He would assemble his toys by first following the directions, then dismantling them and reimagining them in his own unique way. Today Burke's work is highly imagistic, and his propensities for deconstruction and reconstruction pushed him into this field. He originally started undergrad in music, then switched to theatre halfway through.

As he worked to translate This Bitter Earth from page to stage he queried the experiences of each man in the play. Being a queer Black man in an interracial relationship comes with a particular set of complications, and each character has different coping methods. One strong underlying theme involved love and trust—in personal and broader terms.

In a world where people are bombarded with images of Black bodies enduring pain daily, Black folx can find it hard to trust that white people have their best interests at heart. Working through that distrust can be difficult, and it can be challenging to "give even the most well-meaning the benefit of the doubt," Burke said, acknowledging that this sounds more cynical than it is. As happens in the play, when terrible things occur, people put up walls that can prohibit them from living their fullest possible lives.

Burke said that, compared to the real world, queer and interracial stories are rare in mainstream media. And when they do occur, the stories tend to center on categorization rather than humanity, where race and queerness is simply a matter of fact.

His view is that it is the job of a director to facilitate the audience through the experience of a story, and to find the most effective, compelling and engaging way to allow them to walk in someone else's shoes for just a little while. When approaching a play, he said he asks himself, "Why this play? Why now?" Great art has necessity to it. Burke said he'd rather start a conversation with one person about what the play is wrestling with, rather than to have 100 people leave the theatre and never think about it again.

Ultimately, Burke is a big proponent of stories and their amazing power in shaping who people are and become. It is his personal mission to challenge the narrative people typically hear about marginalized folx in order to create togetherness instead of divisiveness. The collaboration between Burke and Rivers on This Bitter Earth aims to do just that.

This Bitter Earth, which About Face Theatre is producing, runs Nov. 1-Dec. 8 at Theater Wit, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets are $15-$38 each; visit AboutFaceTheatre.com or call 773-975-8150.


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