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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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‘This Bitter Earth’ questions whether there’s room for politics in love at Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre

Photo Courtesy to Eldridge Shannon II
“This Bitter Earth,” showing at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre through Nov. 12, follows the relationship dynamics of Jesse, a Black playwright, and wealthy white activist Neil.

A tragic love story touching class, race and sexuality serves as an introspective tale for the politically active at Evanston’s Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre.

In “This Bitter Earth,” playwright Jesse reckons with his own political apathy alongside his interracial relationship. Showing through Nov. 12, the two-character play by Harrison David Rivers opened this weekend at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center under the direction of Tim Rhoze. 

With a 90-minute runtime, the show explores relationship dynamics between Jesse, a lower-income Black playwright, and wealthy white activist Neil. A Black Lives Matter supporter, Neil relentlessly calls out his partner’s lack of political involvement.

Founded in 1979, the Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre has empowered thought provoking African American and African diaspora-centered stories for 30 years –– and “This Bitter Earth” was no exception.

With a set consisting of only rectangular neon light frames and a graffiti backdrop of activist slogans, it was initially unclear how this minimal setting would reflect such an earnest, tragic love story with due diligence. However, actors Matthew Lolar-Johnson (Jesse) and Tiemen Godwaldt (Neil) utilized the minimal set purposefully to focus on their relationship dynamic. 

Lighting was deliberate and the prominent tool for Rhoze’s perception of storytelling. As tensions and feuds arose in the couple’s dynamic, it was fascinating to see the neon lights turn red — an affirmation of the turmoil that was to unfold. When the couple shared a moment of romance and joy, the beams turn white or yellow. The lights were a beautiful asset to the play and helped the audience understand the intimate moments that surrounded a relentless non-sequential narrative. 

As the story jumped from present to past, I wanted to scream at the characters to stop tearing each other apart in a tiresome who-can-be-more-woke battle. Neil constantly criticizes Jesse’s political silence and cannot fathom why his Black boyfriend isn’t more angry about racism and the killing of Black men and women in America. I longed for the couple to appreciate the delicate, rare love they found in each other.

As the couple shared their lows and highs, it felt as if the audience was sitting in with Jesse and Neil in their apartment. It was intimate and a thought provoking dynamic to watch unfold, but also one that the Evanston community may not be used to. It raises the question: “Do white people have the right to call out Black people on their political wokeness?” 

Rhoze told The Daily he wants the Evanston audience to leave “enlightened in a topic they may not know about.”

The play concluded with an emotional imploration from Jesse: “Life is so precious, take care of your blessings.” The audience was left to reflect on how we conduct our own intersectional relationships. What are the true costs of sitting on the sidelines and not speaking out on social justice issues? 

Despite a relentless non-sequential narrative that was at times difficult to follow, Rhoze has a fresh perspective on “This Bitter Earth” that will leave the Evanston community engaged in discussion over family dinner on Sunday.

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