Two lovers try to make peace in a time of hate in Penumbra's 'This Bitter Earth'

Allen Weeks

Allen Weeks

When future generations look back on this decade, trying to understand what it felt like to make one’s way in the U.S. while mourning young black men killed by authorities in acts of heedless violence, they might well turn to This Bitter Earth. Harrison David Rivers’ play chronicles a romance between two men, one black and one white, whose lives and choices are thrown into relief every time they look at the news flashing across their phones.

The play, which premiered last year at San Francisco’s New Conservatory Theatre Center, is now having its regional premiere at Penumbra Theatre. Rivers lives in St. Paul, and most of This Bitter Earth is set there: After they start dating in New York, Jesse (Jon-Michael Reese) and Neil (Kevin Fanshaw) move to Minnesota for Jesse to take an academic job.

Jesse is an African-American playwright, and he spends much of his time furiously typing on his laptop, pouring his conflicted feelings into his work. Neil, on the other hand, is a white man with family wealth that allows him to dedicate his life to activism. He’s active in the Black Lives Matter movement, and the pair’s relationship is strained by the time Neil spends traveling and organizing.

Rivers flashes rapidly among different phases of their shared history, from their unlikely meeting at a protest rally to the hate crime that, we learn early on, occurs at the end of the play’s time span. Director Talvin Wilks keeps these transitions smooth and readily comprehensible, aided by Kathy Maxwell’s atmospheric projections against Maruti Evans’ tidy, whitewashed apartment set.

Fanshaw and Reese constitute the play’s entire cast, and they’re onstage together for almost the entire 90-minute running time. Their trust and intimacy is central to the play, all the more so given that their characters’ partnership is rife with conflict. Reese has a perfect bead on Jesse, whose sharp sarcasm comes with just enough smile to soften the blow—when he wants to. Neil is a little fuzzier: We see his emotional chemistry with Jesse, but no intellectual spark.

Wisely, Rivers doesn’t attempt to tell us everything we might want to know about these men. Mentions of their families, their past relationships, and their lives apart from one another are concrete enough to give us a sense of who Neil and Jesse are, but never so long as to feel tangential. This Bitter Earth lets us listen in as they try to make sense of the world and each other.

The play is also rich with references to their cultural lodestars, such as the poetry of Essex Hemphill, the work of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the Clyde Otis song that inspired the play’s title. That expansive sense of legacy and struggle gives an epic scope to this compact, powerful story about two men and the complicated love they share.

This Bitter Earth
Penumbra Theatre
270 N. Kent St., St. Paul
651-224-3180; through May 20