Dublin Theatre Festival: The Bitter Game

A one man show, written and performed by Keith A Wallace, ‘The Bitter Game‘ is a powerful piece of theatre.

On stage there are three buckets labelled “free shit” and filled with cans of soft drink and bottles of Cadet. Wallace makes sure that the audience doesn’t feel shy taking drinks from the buckets and jokes with us.

Wallace tells us a bit of his childhood in North Philidelphia and explains the culture to us. For many Irish people, who have not had much exposure to African-American culture other than American television, this is somewhat reminiscent of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. That said, this is in no way unoriginal and feels incredibly honest.

Everything from Wallace’s demeanour as he bounces on stage, to his stories, joking and bantering with the audience, makes him instantly likeable and the room collectively befriends him in minutes.
Wallace mixes theatre with spoken word poetry to express his stories and addresses the audience directly, keeping the house lights up for the most of the show to encourage the audience to engage with him and with each other.
Telling us about his friends, siblings and mother, he reminisces to the first time he sees a gun at the age of eight. He is brought up from a very early age to keep his eyes forward, head up and ego down. These are the rules you need to play by in North Philly if you’re black and want to survive.

Wallace masterfully shows the reality of how black people in America are treated by the police. He has a point that he needs to get across and wants to hammer it into the audience’s consciousness. As he hands out candles and has the audience repeat the names of black people murdered by the police, he manages to bring people to tears, evoking powerful images with his narrative.

Without ever referring directly to the black lives matters movement, but playing recordings of protests and speaking directly about what is needed, a clear point and call to action is made while never feeling preachy or forced – a difficult thing that many agit-prop pieces don’t achieve.

Interspersed with the buzz sound used in basketball games, and lively music, it feels like he has welcomed us to join and experience his community for the duration of the piece. The lights are minimal, usually either a spot on him, or house lights up, so we know when we can interact with Wallace and when our focus is purely on what he is telling us.

This is a compelling piece, full of laughter and warmth but has a hard hitting and deeply chilling point to make. This is a pertinent piece for today’s America, that will not be lost on an Irish audience, which is a brilliant combination of poetry, comedy and theatre.

By Siofra NicLiam

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