Arts » Theater

Six Degrees of Political Involvement

by Richard Dodds
Sunday Oct 8, 2017

Harrison David Rivers' new play "This Bitter Earth" takes its title from a Dinah Washington recording, a lament questioning the value of love if there is no one to share it with. But the song ends with the possibility that "someone may answer my call." In this sharply written world premiere at New Conservatory Theatre Center, a character's call is answered before the line goes dead. Whatever optimism that can be rekindled will be hard-earned going forward.

NCTC commissioned the St. Paul-based playwright to write a new play, which is opening the theater's season, and it is a work of uncommon depth, nuance, and emotional impact. And while it is a play in which racial politics is a critical element in the characters' relationship, more often than not, it is filtered through the human comedy. And while human comedy can be tragic, here it can also find humor in the well-observed minutiae of two people navigating their way through a minefield planted over centuries.

Those two people are Jessie, an aspiring black playwright most comfortably cocooned at his typewriter, and Neil, a born-into-wealth white man totally swept up in the Black Lives Matter movement. After meeting at the Million Hoodie March in New York - an event at which the black Jessie has been dragged by a roommate and the white Neil is inadvertently thrust into a speaker's role - they begin a relationship in which they alternately accept and resent each other's different degrees of political involvement.

The playwright often invokes cultural references that can be as playfully idiotic as the cone of silence from the old sitcom "Get Smart" or as deadly serious as a poem by black and gay pioneer Essex Hemphill. The expanse of the characters' touch points, and their understanding that seriousness doesn't preclude playfulness, keep the play from dipping too deeply into polemics, which keeps an audiences' own defenses down and ultimately more open to deeper messages.

Director Ed Decker has directed Rivers' play with a keen sensitivity to the characters' individual nooks and crannies, while capturing a tone and pace that help bring out the overall quality of this work. Set on an attractive multi-purpose set by David Kasper, "This Bitter Earth" skips around in time, offering up early in the play a violent event that actually comes late in Jesse and Neil's relationship. The play occasionally returns to that violence, as scenes from other moments dovetail into one another outside of chronological order. Even though we know how things are going to turn out, there is still unpredictability in how they are going to get there.

NCTC has brought in two Twin Cities-based actors who helped workshop the play, and they wear their characters like second skins. As Jessie, the black politically apathetic playwright, H. Adam Harris has the larger and more complex role, which he fills with astute reads on Jessie's sharp sense of humor and the increasingly wild rollercoaster he finds himself upon. Michael Hanna may be largely a foil to Jessie's emotional needs, which he handles well, while creating a distinct character confused on how to meld his political mission with a one-on-one relationship.

Ultimately, this is Jessie's play, as the character's wish to be left outside racial roles and expectations is increasingly thwarted. It comes to a head in an exquisitely described dream in which he is a guest at a costume party filled with famous black people disguised as other black people. He's not in costume, but the other guests are certain he is wearing a mask.

"This Bitter Earth" will run at New Conservatory Theatre Center through Oct. 22. Tickets are $25-$30. Call (415) 861-8972

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