Thursday, October 5, 2017

"This Bitter Earth"

This Bitter Earth
Harrison David Rivers

H. Adam Harris & Michael Hanna
Grief over a devastating loss unfolds as a series of sometimes disconnected memories whose recall follows no particular timeline in Harrison David Rivers’ riveting, moving This Bitter Earth, now in its world premiere at the New Conservatory Theatre Center.  As one man’s mental videos play themselves out on the stage, parallel and important story lines emerge on a number of levels that grab audience heartstrings and pull at our emotions for a variety of reasons.  And as emotions rise to the point of near tears, questions -- difficult questions -- emerge that cannot be easily answered and must not be ignored.

What does it mean to be a black man – much less a gay, black man -- in America in the twenty-first century?  How much can a white man – even your white lover – really understand and empathize with you as a black man?  What does it mean if he turns activist in Black Lives Matter while you prefer to stay at home and write a play?  What if your budding relationship coincides with the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, the congregants of a black church in South Carolina, and Jamar Clark (the last only a few miles from the apartment the two of you share)?  What if he leaves yet again to march, to protest, and to raise his voice that your and every other black life matters ... all against your plea for him not to go?  What does it mean if you and he love each other so much but sometimes hurt each other even more? 

These are just a few of the many questions that the playwright forces Jesse Howard (and us as audience) to face as his memory flashes through a couple dozen scenes of his several-year, up-and-down relationship with Neil Finley-Darden.  Jesse is a young, African American student trying to finish a thesis that is taking the form of a play about Essex Hemphill, a gay, black poet who unabashedly embraced in his 1980s writings sensuality and sexuality, even in the midst of the AIDS crisis.  He meets Neil, a product of a lifetime of private schools and a wealthy household, who also loves and can quote Hemphill.  The more rotund, soft-spoken Jesse and the long-haired, petite, and totally out-spoken Neil find sparks flying between them over coffee.  Theirs becomes a relationship whose storyline is like so many others of any two lovers with its peaks and dips – except theirs is also interspersed with repeated police shootings of black men that turn their (and thousands of others’) individual and mutual lives upside down.

H. Adam Harris & Michael Hanna
As Jesse, H. Adam Harris gives a performance that increasingly tears at one’s heart as he shares more and more of his and Neil’s story.  His silky voice has just enough Southern ring to it almost to hypnotize the listener, sometimes quivering in its fervor and sometimes lingering a few extra beats onto the ending of the last word so we can relish in the latest detail of his story a bit longer.  His range of emotional displays is tremendously impressive with contagious laughter, coy teasing, angry outbursts, and tear-filled anguish all sharing star billing among his expressive repertoire.  But when he and the playwright combine forces to bring Jesse to a new level of understanding himself as a black man, as a gay man, and as someone who has suffered great loss, that is when H. Adam Harris particularly leaves a lasting impression among a spellbound audience.

Michael Hanna & H. Adam Harris
Contrasting Jesse is so many ways is his lover, Neil.  Michael Hanna captures the nervous agitation, the driving impatience, and the reluctance to compromise of a young man out to make the world more just for those he sees as being oppressed and worse – murdered – by those in the authority and majority.  Is he just another guilty, white liberal jumping on the bus when the news cameras arrive; or is his heart sincere to the core as he heads out yet to another long bus ride to a protest in some far off city?  Mr. Hanna’s Neil is certainly over-zealous, but his portrayal has to lead one to see him as the latter.  He also readily exposes Neil’s warts; and he allows Neil’s fun and sexy side to emerge as genuine and believable.  Together with Jesse, they are a couple that we have no doubt belongs together – if they can survive the angst and anger each sometimes brings out in the other.

While sometimes during the play it is difficult to establish just when the current scene is actually taking place along the timeline of Jesse’s and Neil’s relationship, the excellent dramaturgy of Ari Rice in the program provides useful milestones of the national events mentioned in the script that help keep us on track.  The direction of Ed Decker ensures that the dreamlike sequences flow smoothly and beautifully one after the other.  He and the playwright also understand how to use interspersed moments of giddiness and silliness as well as of tender and sensual lovemaking to help balance the overall serious topics and questions the play raises.

Devin Kasper has created a stunning set that accentuates both the here-and-now and the wispy nature of memories that come and go.  The lighting of Robert Hahn helps establish that what we are seeing is largely interactions as remembered.  Projections designed by Sarah Phykitt clarify settings in wonderful and creative ways while the sound designed by James Ard puts us smack dab in the middle of a gay nightclub or in the heart of a crowd’s protest. 

World premiere productions often have a lot of rough spots in them in their first outing.  As staged by New Conservatory Theatre Company, Harrison David Rivers’ This Bitter Earth – which is a commission at the invitation of NCTC’s Artistic Director Ed Decker – is already a well-polished, well-executed piece of compelling theatre.  While so many new works never get reproduced past the premiere, This Bitter Earth is a story of our time that deserves and needs to be seen by audiences across the country.

Rating: 4.5 E

This Bitter Earth continues through October 22, 2017 on the Decker Stage of of The New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photos by Lois Tema

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