Not to be deterred by such complications as Covid19, The Road Theatre opens its 2021 season online with This Bitter Earth, filmed with four cameras, live onstage, and streaming through April 30th.
The title mystified me, especially when I learned that, beside the song itself, the title has spawned a novel about murder in the south, a ballet. But the totality of playwright Harrison David Rivers lays bare today’s problematic social environment as “this bitter earth.” The central action involves two men, Neal (Chase Cargill), who is white and privileged, and Jesse (Matthew Hancock), Black, intellectual, and gentle, as they navigate their own differences as well as the surrounding maelstrom amidst the Black Lives Matter movement. Their scenes together, unfolding from 2012 to 2015– all interior — seem far away from the action outside, but their lives are very much impacted by surrounding events. Both Cargill and Hancock bring depth to playwright Rivers’ compassionate glimpse into these two men as they try to bridge economic, cultural, and racial divides.
The fact that the action veers precipitously from the West Village, where they meet, to Chicago, where they land, and back again, is ameliorated by the issues that unfold. We are witness to the generosity of spirit displayed by both men. Their spats are closer to impassioned debates than solid differences that can never be abridged. And therein lies the strength of the play. The lovers symbolize in personal terms the very real cultural ways of seeing that constitute our current social dilemma.
There is an abundance of foreshadowing in the dialogue that raises the tension in the play. We see Neal, who has the privilege to speak up against discrimination, upbraid Jesse, who does not have that permission, with the observation that maybe “white men are allowed to be soft, but maybe gentle gets you killed”. And, as we observe, privileging outspokenness will do the same.
The four-camera production values contribute to a sense of immediacy when watching this excellent rendition. The pace never lets up despite the haphazardness caused by zigzagging back and forth in time. The conclusion, initially disguised by the time shifts, still impacts us as we watch. For viewing permissions, go to: www.roadtheatre.org and click “buy tickets” on the top right.
Recorded Live Performances streaming at 5:00pm PST / 8:00pm EST; 8:00 pm PST / 11:00pm EST — MARCH 26th – APRIL 30th, 2021. Tickets: $25.00