This Bitter Earth. Written by Harrison David Rivers. Directed by Ed Decker. New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94102.
NCTC opens its 2017-18 season in spectacular fashion with the World premiere of This Bitter Earth, Harrison David Rivers’ thoughtful and emotionally powerful examination of a young inter-racial couple’s struggle to maintain their relationship amidst the heavy weight of modern socio-political obstacles. With Ed Decker’s insightful direction and stunning performances by H. Adam Harris and Michael Hanna, Rivers’ incisive and genuine dialogue engages the audience and elicits our sympathies and sense of connection to these young lovers.
We meet first meet Jesse, a black art student at Colombia, as he struggles with his principles. A severe trauma has ripped asunder his beliefs in goodness and fairness. In a series of non-linear flashbacks, we see the reason for Jesse’s present situation. Jesse meets and falls in love with Neil, a white upper class, social activist. Through a series of vignettes, we’re voyeurs to their growing love; their love of disco, coffee houses and their mutual love of TV’s Huxtable family (The Cosby Show). The couple are endearing and very much in love. Jesse tells us his rationale for loving white boys; he never felt comfortable with the macho posturing of his peers.
Rivers covers the struggles the couple encounters with race; nasty racist comments and the thought that perhaps Neil is culturally co-opting his black lover’s issues. There’s a beautiful moment when Jesse attends a Black Lives Matter rally and sees Neil, bullhorn in hand, addressing the crowd. His disgust quickly turns to reverence when Neil borrows the poet Essex Hemphill’s “For My Own Protection”, and speaks the words “If whales, snails, dogs, cats, Chrysler and Nixon can be saved, the lives of Black men are priceless and can be saved.” It’s one of those love at first sight moments that we can all empathize.
The play takes place during the timeline of The Million Hoodie March for Trayvon Martin, the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and the slaughter of 9 church members by Brown by Dylann Roof in 2015. It fuels Neil’s passions but creates tension with the more reserved, thoughtful Jesse. When Neil cheats on Jesse, the betrayal burns like a brand and almost destroys the couple.
Rivers has created a common emotional collage for us to digest. As specific as these two characters are, they represent universal archetypes for our complicated times. The writing is top-notch and the acting heartfelt and genuine. Robert Hahn’s lighting design and James Ard’s sound flesh out the characters development. The scenic design, sheets of sheer fabric upon which graphics are displayed is superbly executed by Devin Kasper.
Adam Harris carries the emotional weight of the play, both as narrator and participant in his own life. He’s a sensitive writer, raised by religious parents and shaped by the lovely, family ethic of the Huxtable’s. It’s a lovely, gut-wrenching performance. Michael Hanna as Neil is the opposite; raised with a golden spoon in his mouth yet committed to combating social injustice. He’s alive, involved and wears hit heart on his sleeve. This Bitter Earth, which takes its name from the Dinah Washington song Jesse listens to, studies the costs of speaking up, acting out and the apathy that constricts some people. It’s must-see theatre by a rising, refreshing playwright.
Performances through October 22, 2017 www.nctc.org 415.861.8972