We chatted to the director about bringing This Bitter Earth by Harrison David Rivers to the White Bear Theatre.

Hi Peter, for those who don’t know what is This Bitter Earth about? This Bitter Earth is about an interracial gay couple navigating a relationship at the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement. Neil, a White activist from a privileged background, meets Jesse, an introspective Black writer, reluctant to join any cause. As tensions mount amid the killings of Black people across the US, and as Neil becomes more and more involved in activism, the two young men must find their equilibrium in ever-more-turbulent times. The story’s time setting also encompasses a period when hate crimes generally, including against LGBT people, were concurrently rising, and the play explores that intersection as well. Wrestling with issues of race and class, love and loss, it is a haunting reminder of the strength it takes to find one’s voice and live out loud.

How did you come across the play? Although I had been acting and directing in the US for a number of years, I decided that I wanted to have a proper drama school experience, so I moved to London to train on the MA Theatre Directing course at Mountview. For my final workshop project on the course, I wanted to find a small-scale new American work. I’m originally from Chicago, so I try to keep current with what is going on in Chicago’s theatre scene, and while I was searching for a script, I read a review of a production of This Bitter Earth there, and it grabbed me immediately.

What was it about the story that grabbed your attention? Harrison is brilliantly intelligent, and he writes emotionally rich characters and powerful stories. This Bitter Earth offers tremendous scope to play, because it’s both a political and timely cri de coeur and a tender and moving love story, and also because its structure is fragmented, and that invites creative and imaginative leaps. It’s a puzzle that can be solved a lot of different ways.

How have you found the process of bringing This Bitter Earth to the stage? Exhausting! But also, of course, exhilarating. I first started trying to get it on just before the Pandemic, so that was a huge setback. I thought the pandemic would last forever. Then when it didn’t, I still thought that the loss of momentum would mean that the show would never get done, and I would never find my way. Fortunately, through friends I did find my way, to Michael Kingsbury at the White Bear, who generously offered the show a home, and through other friends, to the brilliant Sarah Lawrie, who signed on to produce the show with me under the banner of my new company, Storefront Theatre London, and she has been invaluable in helping bring this brilliant and timely play to life.

How does it feel to be bringing the show to the White Bear Theatre? I am so happy to be finding my way into the London theatre community through one of London’s oldest pub theatres. As I mentioned, I’m from Chicago and came up working in Chicago’s storefront theatre scene, where intimate spaces encourage a sense of shared experience and immediacy that I find thrilling. So it feels like a home from home.

By Emma Clarendon

This Bitter Earth will play at the White Bear Theatre from the 21st February until the 11th March.


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