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How 2 Seattle productions tackle race, social justice, and the right to just be

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Mike Davis / KUOW

“This Bitter Earth” and “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” are both playing this month in Seattle.

On one stage, a curtain opens as two men sit in their apartment.

“I find it hard to believe you’re not bothered by what you see around, when you watch the news, read the paper, leave your apartment,” says Neil, a white, Black Lives Matter activist to his boyfriend, a Black playwright named Jesse.

On another stage, in another theater, an editor named Sidney Brustein tells a reporter, “Above all else, keep your conscience to yourself. It’s the only form of compassion left.”

One of those plays, "This Bitter Earth," is modern, written in 2020. The other — "The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window" — was first performed in 1964.

"This Bitter Earth" tells the story of a gay couple during the racial justice protests of 2020. "The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window" follows a Jewish, bohemian newspaper owner as he decides what he should — or shouldn’t — print in his paper.

Watching them both, they pull at similar strings — of people stuck in revolutionary times; people who don’t want to immerse themselves fully in a political moment and are struggling with whether they really have a choice.

But the plays draw on other themes as well.

"This is a love story. Yes, we hit on some hard political things. But the meat of what's happening is also a love story," said Brodrick Santeze Ryans, who plays Jesse in "This Bitter Earth."

The play follows two characters: Neil and Jesse, a couple who met at a Black Lives Matter protest.

"From there, it's the intertwining of their life over a three-year span of time," Santeze Ryans said.

"Our play takes place in 2023, but it was written in 1964," said Anthony Holiday, an actor playing two characters, Wally O'Hara and Max, in "The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window."

"It's about a group of people who get in this living room, and they fight for action in each other, because they've been so ... paralyzed by the world that they're in. And they've been moved by what it means to be a bohemian, what it means to sit around and think thoughts, and to believe that thinking thoughts is actually action."

Ryan Guzzo Purcell, director of "The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window" said the decision to modernize the play was deliberate.

"The early 1960s were a time when young progressives were ascendant, and really thought they were going to fix everything. And I think, spoiler alert, they didn't. Like they didn't solve everything. And I think the same energy is really present today," he said.

It was a way, Guzzo Purcell said, for audience members of different generations to see their experiences in the play.

Just as both works emphasize the elements of time and place, they also feature versions of the same archetype: the white, liberal American.

In "The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window," that character is a woman named Iris.

"Iris is a very particular type of white womanhood," Guzzo Purcell explained. "Iris is perhaps the key spokesperson for, 'I believe these things, but if it comes down to can I be successful and find the life I want? That's my priority.'"

Holiday said he agrees, and noted that the other characters begin to open up when Iris becomes more politically active.

"This may sound really radical, but I think white women hold a lot of secrets for how to go forward, because the power structure is the patriarch, and it's white male. And these specific dynamics or relationships are, you know, pillow talk with each other."

In "This Bitter Earth," the character Neil is not a passive observer, like Iris attempts to be in "The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window." He's a Black Lives Matter protestor, and as it's later revealed, a trust fund baby.

"Neil's the person who's like, 'No, I'm actually putting my foot forward," said Santeze Ryans. "It's actually my character, Jesse, who is like, ' thank you.'"

Santeze Ryans said he sees a lot of "Neils" in Seattle. For most people watching the play they should see Neil as a mirror, not a window, Santeze Ryans added.

And Neil is successful, Santeze Ryans said, at being an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement. Where he fails is as a partner to Jesse. He doesn't understand Jesse's needs, or the fact that, being a Black man, Jesse can't turn away from the protests or the politics when he's done. His existence is political in a way Neil's isn't, Santeze Ryans noted.

"He's at that place where he's just like, 'I want to be successful in my work. Why do I have to be successful and making sure that other people know that I'm activated in my community? When, for me, blackness is just my existence.'"

Sidney Brustein, the main character of "The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window," asks a similar question. After taking part in committees, protests, and movements, he feels like nothing has changed.

That's because of how Sidney has chosen to participate, Holiday said.

"He's been doing it with a group of people that looked exactly like him, that believe in the same things as him."

Director Ryan Guzzo Purcell pointed out that Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote the play, was a card-carrying communist. She believed in the idea that liberation had to be collective.

"She was deeply skeptical of individual movements for recognition, because I think she believed that they would lead to, perhaps a new hierarchy, but still a hierarchy," Guzzo Purcell said.

"The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window" is playing at the Erickson Theatre until Feb. 25, and "This Bitter Earth" is playing at Seattle Public Theater through Feb. 19.

This conversation also veered into spoiler filled discussion on death, meaning, and more, which didn't make it on air. Listen to that discussion below.

The Conversation Continued

KUOW arts and culture reporter Mike Davis speaks with Director Ryan Guzzo Purcell and actor Anthony Holiday from The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, as well as actor Brodrick Santeze Ryans from This Bitter Earth. This conversation contains spoilers for both plays.

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