The Bitter Game opens with a Philadelphia block party. Our guide through the neighborhood streets is an enthusiastic eight year old, introducing us to the personalities and sensory experiences one should expect from this urban tradition. It’s a celebration. It’s fun. It’s community. The light-hearted summer treat is disrupted with a shot, neighbors rushing towards the safety of their homes. Our protagonist pushes his sister to the ground of a basketball court and lays on top of her as a shield. He sees the owner of the gun that produced that party ending bang running past the court, chasing after his target. Violence will threaten any peace for the rest of this show.
Writer, performer, and self-described “actorvist” Keith A. Wallace portrays three characters throughout The Bitter Game: the afore mentioned young man (both as a child and as a nineteen year old college student), that young man’s mother, and a slightly older man who also lives in their neighborhood. Watching him play both African-American son and mother was one of the show’s most compelling elements for me. The son carries bright eyes and a big smile wherever he goes. At nineteen he gives off the sense of immortality we all carried at that age, even though he’s acutely aware, thanks to the warnings of his mother and the lessons of the newspaper headlines, that danger can be around any corner or at the end of any traffic stop.
The mother wants her son to be proud of who he is, to be confident and free, of course, like all mothers desire for their children. She softens that encouragement, though, with reminders to keep his head up, his eyes forward and his ego down whenever he crosses the path of a police officer. In my favorite piece of writing from the show, she reminds her boy that sometimes she wants him to be as small as possible. Be invisible.
This conflict is central to my enjoyment of Wallace’s show: mother and son, pride and humility, hope and fear, all delivered by one man desperate to make me understand what’s happening to people who look like him all over this country. Actually, “understanding” isn’t Wallace’s goal, and he doesn’t seem all that impressed by our tears or thoughts and prayers. He wants something done. He seeks accountability. He demands justice. He begs for the killing to stop.
The thrust stage has a wire hanging across it with a few pairs of sneakers tied to and hanging from it, a sight familiar to anyone who lives in a major city. Wallace acknowledges that the meaning of those sneakers is different depending on who you ask, another reminder that there are many interpretations of the traditions of these communities. Wallace encourages audience participation throughout the show. During the block party, that participation is as fun as any neighborhood get together on a summer day. That sense of community relationship, as opposed to simply audience/performer relationship, will blossom later when the story gets darker, and the audience participation more somber.
Buzzers and announcers proclaiming things like the end of the first quarter and halftime take the show back to its roots. The earliest performances of the The Bitter Game were performed on a playground basketball court. That must have been an ideal space, as this show wants to make the walls of the theater disappear. Audiences shouldn’t forget what they saw here when they are back out in the “real world.” The blending of the theatrical and the real must be one of the signature goals of an “actorvist” after all. In this show, performed at Under the Radar, Wallace has succeeded.