This Bitter Earth, Harrison David Rivers’ play directed by Tyrone L. Robinson, chronicles the labor of two men trying to make their interracial relationship work and leaves you questioning what allyship actually looks like.
The play opens with Jesse, a Black Ph.D. student from Kansas played by David Bazemore, delivering a monologue on his inability to keep his balance. Ready to knock him off his feet (and not necessarily in the good way) is his love interest Neil, played by Gabriel Elmore, an overeager, capital W, white man who’s ready to do the work of an ally.
Their relationship is backdropped by the near-constant slaughtering of Black men over the course of several years, starting in 2012. Each new murder throws Jesse and Neil into an interrogation of the racial politics at play within their own relationship. An unsurprising pattern quickly emerges as Neil overflows with white liberal hyperbolic outrage and Jesse quietly shoulders the weight of Blackness in America.
Neil already has a version in his head of how this relationship should work. He expects Jesse to be as outraged as he is, fired up and ready to protest the state of race relations in our society together as a couple. During the Ferguson uprisings, Neil packs his bags and hops in a van ready to help. When Jesse takes shelter by burrowing himself into his thesis writing, Neil demands more of him. More anger. More anguish. More despair. Neil demands a performance from Jesse.
Neil doesn’t understand that there is no correct way to react to trauma and there is no singular way to fight against your oppression. Jesse’s existence is a form of resistance. Being an ally does not mean making demands of people of color; allyship starts by listening and asking what one needs. This Bitter Earth is most effective when teasing out what ineffective allyship looks like. Beyond the cringiness of his virtue signaling, what keeps the play churning is the race between, whether Neil will learn how to actually be a better boyfriend (and ally) before Jesse leaves him.
Bazemore and Elmore really capture the emotional tension that swings back and forth between couples that are defined by their racial differences, rather than united by their shared experiences. When they laugh you hold your breath waiting for the unavoidable collision of their differing worldviews. When they fight you hope for them to make up quickly so that they can get back to laughing. It’s a feeling I’ve known all too well in some of my past relationships and friendships.
The moments of levity were far and few between the moments of racial tension. The unfortunate side effect is their exchanges feel sterile and academic. When Neil sleeps with another guy, Jesse wants to learn everything about the other guy. What is his favorite color? What is his favorite movie? How many siblings does he have? What do his parents do?
As the play was ending, I realized that I couldn’t fully answer those questions about Jesse or Neil either. Their relationship was so busy bearing the burden of American race relations that I did not get enough of the little details that reveal who they are or why they are together. I wanted to learn more about them; I wanted them to go beyond being personifications of Blackness and whiteness.
I walked out of This Bitter Earth reflecting on my own allyship to others as well as my connection to the allies in my life. I thought about the times I may have taken up too much space like Neil and the times I didn’t ask for what I needed like Jesse. I am comforted by the fact that unlike them, I am not confined to an 85-minute play and can invest in meaningful relationships a lifelong practice.
This Bitter Earth is available to stream through Interact Theatre from February 28th to March 13th.