Chicago Theater Review: THIS BITTER EARTH (About Face Theatre at Theater Wit)

Post image for Chicago Theater Review: THIS BITTER EARTH (About Face Theatre at Theater Wit)

by Lawrence Bommer on November 9, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


The gulf is clear from the start. Joe Schermoly’s set consists of interconnected boxes that create shelves which suggest two apartments separated by a crosswalk. It’s an apt depiction of the divide between the interracial gay lovers in This Bitter Earth. An earnest if unfulfilled one-act by Harrison David Rivers, this Chicago premiere from About Face Theatre contrasts and critiques conventional expectations about who’s the activist and who’s the observer.

Mikael Burke’s 90-minute staging works hard to drive home the supposedly unlikely differences between these Minnesota soulmates. Neil (Daniel Desmarais) is a Caucasian trust-fund brat with investment portfolios; he’s also a “woke” agitator for Black Lives Matter and other causes. In contrast, Jesse (Sheldon Brown) is a black doctoral candidate and playwright who would rather create than agitate.

Together, they intend to “fill in the gaps” for each other. That’s the hope anyway.

While the former goes to Ferguson and other trouble spots to protest police violence, the latter is content to write a script about gay poet and radical Essex Hemphill. Aggressively unchronological flashbacks expose the undeviating mindsets of lovers whose mutual ardor isn’t quite convincing.

Jesse spars with Neil over his inescapable privilege and his “entitled” power to protest, a right that Jesse questions along with basics like gravity and progress. Jesse prefers white lovers to black gay companions: Rightly or not, he thinks that, not always needing to prove their masculinity through toughness, they’re not afraid to be soft. He distrusts Neil’s idealism, preferring to explain it as “liberal guilt” rather than the sincere rage against inequality that it clearly is. Neil refuses to think it’s wrong to be righteous.

As Rivers argues by example as much as dialogue, “no man is an island.” Jesse is tragically unable to escape the hate that Neil opposes with his megaphone. For what it’s worth, the boyfriends also can’t avoid the “disruption” of jealousy (rather reflexively injected into the plot as a cursory complication).

True to the Dinah Washington song that inspires it, This Bitter Earth ends sadly. A cruel world drives home the lovers’ divisions in the worst way.

Repudiating easy stereotypes, Brown gives his introspective intellectual Jesse all the stubborn dignity that Rivers intends. Desmarais’ more fluid, extroverted and spontaneous Neil wants to balance Jesse, a thankless compensation as it turns out.

The play’s problem is that it sets up a situation that never builds into a compelling tale. It settles for less in both results and revelations than these promising characters deserve. A hate crime resolves nothing. Plus, the love meant to connect them is here taken for granted. We need to know how and why they can overlook their glaring personality divergences.

Regrettably, their passion is too much an act of faith — on the audience’s part as much as the characters. Rivers doesn’t fill in the “gaps” after all.

photos by Liz Lauren

This Bitter Earth
About Face Theatre
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3
dark Thurs Nov 22; added shows Sat at 3 (Nov 24 & Dec 8)
ends on December 8, 2018
for tickets, call 773.975.8150 or visit About Face

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

Leave a Comment