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This Bitter Earth
by Sean Margaret Wagner
2018-11-13

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Author: Harrison David Rivers

At: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: TheaterWit.org; $20-$38. Runs through: Dec. 8

In bringing This Bitter Earth to Chicago, About Face Theatre and director Mikael Burke are taking a very current, not always flattering snapshot of our range of responses to national violence as it creeps closer.

With his time-hopping, poetic drama, author Harrison David Rivers explores the boundaries set and broken by two men in an interracial relationship. When Rivers' characters are allowed to revel in their specifics, they are endlessly compelling. In the same stroke, they can get bogged down with exposition and playwright perspective, and are often turned into plot devices. This has not deterred Burke and the artistic team from investing in this frank look at love in the time of rampant racism. Perfection is the enemy of important storytelling.

This Bitter Earth cascades like a pile of loose photos of a normal relationship made idyllic with the knowledge that something sweet and meaningful is done. Writer/teacher Jesse ( Sheldon Brown ) has just met activist/trust-fund baby Neil ( Daniel Desmarais )—or maybe they have spent years together—with growing loyalty and annoyance. The true courtship isn't between them; it's watching their interplay with something irreconcilable as it grows between them.

Neil has buckets of white guilt and is a passionate protester, whereas Jesse is just trying to exist as a Black gay man, and stay under the radar. Neil can't understand Jesse's ability to see injustice and stay stone faced, any more than Jesse can understand what drives Neil to spend his days chanting into bullhorns for the disenfranchised. Their love can feel like a refuge and a trap, especially as Neil struggles with the concept of not asking a black man to do his emotional labor, no matter how good his intentions may be.

The true strength of This Bitter Earth lies in the pair of fearless and expressive performers at the helm. As Neil, Daniel Desmarais shares his deep thoughts and hopeful outlook unashamedly. You don't have to reach very far to find the uncomfortable thing that inspires his white guilt: his vast net worth. His outlook is trapped in 2016, and it's deeply disheartening to hear him predict a bright future with "less crazy white people" from our 2018 vantage point.

However, Sheldon Brown, as Jesse, is droll and reserved, forever lowering his societal expectations. It takes some chipping away to catch a glimpse of his beating heart, and that should be the riveting focal point of this show. There's no landscape you'll want to dive into more than Jesse's Essex Hemphill-inspired theatrical poetry. This Bitter Earth is scattered with pockets of beautiful truth designed to make Chicago appreciate the impossible soil from which Black art grows.


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