Maeve Connaughton, Contributing Writer
An emotionally intense play poses one question: “Should love be political?”
VCU’s Black Theatre Association and Richmond Triangle Players hosted a talkback on Sunday night to discuss the themes in “This Bitter Earth” by playwright Harrison David Rivers.
“This Bitter Earth” is a contemporary two-character play that focuses on race, class and sexuality as boyfriends Neil and Jesse work through issues surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement. Neil is a white BLM protester constantly pushing his boyfriend to be more active, but Jesse is a Black playwright who struggles with his own political exhaustion.
Neil and Jesse address their conflicting realities throughout the play and learn how to understand each other’s perspectives.
During the talkback, the Black Theatre Association focused on the change in theatre production during the pandemic and how audience members can relate the themes of the play to real life. The cast and crew members — Evan Nasteff, Raja Benz, Brandon Rashad Butts and Keaton Hillman — shared their feelings on the BLM movement and how their opinions conflicted and coexisted with their characters. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.
What was this process like amid COVID-19?
Nasteff (Neil): It was weird … We started with a week of rehearsals over Zoom before the holidays, and then we took two weeks off. And then we had some more Zoom rehearsals, and then we had one in-person rehearsal. And then we had a COVID scare. And we went back to Zoom. We probably had in-person rehearsals for maybe one-third of the entire process … For me, it was a little difficult and new to sort of fall in love with somebody over a computer screen.
How was it filming for on-demand? Was it any different? Was it distracting at all?
Benz (intimacy director): I’m pretty lucky that my position as the intimacy director allowed me to work both in person and online when possible. And for me, I think the thing that this really highlights is that we can’t pretend these are the same things … A great thing with intimacy, for example, is that it changes what one might be willing to do whether they’re streamed or seen in person because of — I don’t want to say, but once it goes to the internet, it’s forever. … So putting your image as an actor, specifically, into a virtual space takes a whole new bravery.
How did you all navigate triggering content such as homophobia, police killings and shootings, and hate crimes?
Rashad Butts (director): When I first read the script … I got caught up in the construct of the play and all that. And I realize that that’s kind of like my defense mechanism against materials such as this. I just get wrapped up in how you do it and how you sell it rather than taking that trip down the dark road. … It was a lot of me kind of holding back the way the play affected me because I wanted to see how it affected the room first and move from there. … Truly trusting the process was a big part of this for me.
Can you talk a little about Jesse’s exhaustion as a Black playwright and how that led to his apathy and lack of participation in the Black Lives Matter movement?
Hillman (Jesse’s understudy): I feel specifically as Black people, and specifically at this time, there’s a lot of people who are not Black, telling us how we should feel. … White people cannot tell Black people how to react to something that does not affect them. And so that’s something that I feel is my biggest reaction to this question in the Neil-Jesse kind of relationship. … Just because Jesse’s care for this situation isn’t manifesting in the same way that it is for you does not mean he does not care.
Can you speak more on making this play during the BLM movement and separating your own feelings from your character’s?
Nasteff (Neil): There’s a lot of parallels, and there’s also a lot of dissonance. Neil has a lot of what Brandon calls the “caucacity” like in moments where he tells Jesse how he should be reacting and feeling. That’s not something I identify with. But in terms of his activism … I can relate to how Neil does that.