Taking its title from singer Dinah Washington’s 1960 R&B hit, this 2017 two-hander by Minnesota playwright Harrison David Rivers—a Chicago premiere from About Face Theatre—focuses on thirtysomething gay lovers Jesse (Sheldon Brown) and Neil (Daniel Desmarais). Jesse, a black man from a conservative religious upbringing in Kansas, has come to New York to become a playwright. Neil is a white trust-fund baby who, freed from having to work for a living, devotes himself to activism in the Black Lives Matter movement. They meet at a BLM protest where Neil confounds Jesse’s skepticism about white “allies” when he recites, from memory, a poem by poet-activist Essex Hemphill: “If whales, snails, dogs, cats / Chrysler and Nixon can be saved, / the lives of Black men are priceless / and can be saved . . .”
Framed as a flashback playing in Jesse’s mind, This Bitter Earth explores Jesse and Neil’s struggle to forge a relationship despite obstacles both external and internal. While Neil’s anti-racism activism is sincere and passionate, it’s enabled by a privilege that blocks him from understanding Jesse as deeply as he needs to. And Jesse’s seeming “apathy” about political engagement is really self-protective emotional camouflage for a man who believes he has to be tough in order not to be hurt.
Chronicling the characters’ relationship in fragmented, nonlinear fashion, This Bitter Earth challenges its actors to express the story’s highly charged emotional through line authentically. Under Mikael Burke’s direction, Brown and Desmarais meet the play’s demands, with Brown especially delivering a performance of gripping, painful intensity. v