Martin Edwards stars in the UK premiere of the acclaimed American play This Bitter Earth, set at the start of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, which has just opened at London’s White Bear Theatre. He talked to us about performance and political activism. Time to get booking!
The beginnings of the Black Lives Matter movement. Neil (Max Sterne) is a White activist from a privileged background. Jesse (Martin Edwards) is an introspective Black writer, reluctant to join any cause.
As tensions mount with the extrajudicial killings of Black men throughout the U.S. and uprisings begin, the two men are forced to navigate the politics of their love and find their voices in a turbulent time. Wrestling with issues of race and class, love and loss, this moving and timely story is a haunting reminder of the strength it takes to live out loud.
This Bitter Earth is written by award-winning Black US playwright, librettist, and television writer David Harrison Rivers. The UK premiere, directed by Peter Cieply, and produced by Sarah Lawrie and Storefront Theatre, runs for a limited season until 11 March 2023 at London’s White Bear Theatre.
When did you first become aware of the Black Lives Matter movement?
Good question! It feels so ubiquitous now but to pinpoint exactly when I heard it is difficult to say. Probably during lockdown around the time of the George Floyd killing.
How important do you think BLM is in today’s society?
Well, it’s obviously become a massive touchstone of the modern age in both the US and the UK. While it gained currency as a phrase in the aftermath of the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida back in 2012 at the hands of Neighbourhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman, it now serves as a framing device around broader concerns of systemic racial inequality.
And it goes without saying that it’s also become a provocation for those less sympathetic to its political and social aims and consequently very divisive, hence the retort White Lives Matter.
That said, even within the broadly progressive movement there are some – and I include myself, to some extent – who consider the phrase to be in danger of being patronising, condescending and cumbersome. As a phrase, it’s hugely provocative. And there’s power in that I guess.
The key is whether it helps the debate or simply forces people into their own self-identified camps.
What did you think when you first read This Bitter Earth?
I love David Harrison Rivers‘ writing. It’s dangerous, bold and inventive. As an actor, it’s a privilege to speak these words on stage in front of a live audience. The intelligence just jumps right off the page. That, and its theatricality.
It’s Harrison’s understanding of both text AND form that makes this play so great. Without giving too much away, there’s a reason the play is told in a non-linear way. Form informs content. Content informs form. And as a writer, Harrison gets that and executes it fantastically.
Tell us about your character.
Jesse is a complex character. He’s an old soul. But yearning to be free from the constraints that living as a minority mostly white spaces inevitably imposes on those who are different. Something I can relate to.
What do you want audiences to take away from the play?
A fellow creative once said to me that the best plays are ones that tell complex stories in complex ways. This Bitter Earth is a great example of just such a play.
By depicting this bi-racial relationship between two gay men who intersect race and class within the broader context of modern America through a non-linear narrative structure, Harrison weaves an incredibly complex story that is also at the same time accessible and very moving. It’s a play that works on your heart and your intellect in my opinion.
We asked Harrison David Rivers what compelled him to write #THISBITTEREARTH❓
— This Bitter Earth (@this_bitter) February 16, 2023
Are you politically active yourself?
I’m not politically active myself and I’ve never been a member of a political party. I do however devour the daily news cycle avidly (Radio 4 is always on in the background) and consider myself fairly informed.
As someone who grew up with the background of long-running Tory administration, I’m probably considered one of Thatcher’s Kids – that generation of young people considered to be possibly less politically active than previous generations, more concerned with gaining points on my CV than going to marches.
But as a young, black, working-class boy trying to get on in life during the 1980s, coming from a school where very few went to university, getting the chance to obtain a degree was itself a political act. And no less important than marching on the streets.
In this respect, Jesse and I are similar. While Jesse is politically inactive (with a capital P), his aspirations to be a writer are, by definition, a political act (as well as an artistic endeavour). He may not obviously subscribe (at least at the beginning of the play) to any political movement/party, but that doesn’t mean his life is without struggle.
That’s one of the central questions the play explores: what does it mean to be political? Given the times we’re living in, I’d say that’s a vitally important question for each and everyone one of us.
This Bitter Earth runs from 21 February to 11 March 2023 at the White Bear Theatre, 138 Kennington Park Road, London SE11 4DJ, with Tuesday to Saturday evening performances at 7.30pm. Tickets £17 (concessions £13). CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!