This Bitter Earth – White Bear Theatre, London

Reviewer: John Cutler

Writer: Harrison David Rivers

Director: Peter Cieply

African American Jesse is a hard-up budding writer from the Deep South with a Baptist upbringing, a scholarship to a prestigious New York University, and an antipathy towards political activism. He has only ever dated white men because, in his own words, black men have never learned how to be “soft”. He thinks he is the “nicest person I know” and he may well be right.

Neil (Max Sterne) is a needy white trust fund baby with uber-liberal parents, a roving eye, and a growing interest in activism for the Black Lives Matter movement. In their own contrasting ways both men feel like interlopers in an unfamiliar realm. A chance encounter at a demo leads to a drunken date and the beginnings of a long term, if bumpy, love affair. But can these two very different people manage the complex challenges of making their relationship work across political, racial, cultural, and class boundaries?

Harrison David Rivers’ tender and thoughtful love story This Bitter Earth, in a welcome first UK production by US-born director Peter Cieply, is set against the backdrop of a decade of extrajudicial killings of Black men throughout the USA. TV news reports describing the deaths repeatedly interrupt scenes of the two men’s turbulent bickering and burgeoning intimacy. But Jesse (a beautifully layered turn by Martin Edwards) remains dismissive of Neil’s activism. To his mind “a busload of guilty white people” are not going to effect much real change in the engrained racism that discredits some US police forces.

By the end the writer reaches a political epiphany of sorts, although not for the reasons you might suppose. Rivers’ cleverly constructed non-linear narrative hides a shocking twist in the tail. One that reminds us that homophobia can be every bit as much of a threat to mixed race LGBTQ+ couples as racism. As the show blurb remind us, hate crimes committed against gay men are second only to those committed against black men in FBI statistics.

Sterne captures Neil ‘s winsome neediness and yearning desire to make a difference in life perfectly, even if the posh white boy feels the less convincing of the two lovers. Somehow his journey from privileged private school to megaphone warrior sometimes feels a tad artificial. One wonders whether he really would have neglected to mention his new boyfriend was black before bringing him home to visit his wealthy investment banking parents. Or indeed be quite so well versed in the work of obscure African American poets. Character contrivances aside this is a kind and topical love story that packs quite a punch.

Runs until 11 March 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Thoughtful love story.

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