Although you might be able to hazard a guess as to where A Bitter Game is heading, the ending isn’t any less effective. The disarmingly charming Keith A. Wallace, who begins the show as 8-year-old Jamal, a boy from North Philadelphia, takes the viewer through this boy’s existence in this one-man show.
Jamal is like many other 8-year-old boys. He’s been raised by a village, which is just apparent through the words Jamal uses to describe his neighbors, and he’s innocent to the ways of the world. That is until, there’s a shooting during the neighborhood block party. After throwing himself on his sister to shield her in the chance that a stray bullet comes her way, young Jamal locks eyes with the shooter and his life forever changed. He’s in awe of the power of the gun.
Presented at the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, The Bitter Game is structured like a basketball game, and when each chapter of Jamal’s life closes, the buzzer rings. The second period takes on the point-of-view of Pamela, Jamal’s mother. She’s just found that 12-year-old Jamal was playing with a toy gun, which is enough to get him killed these days. As she berates her son out of fear and anger, she gives him his most important survival lesson. If Jamal ever encounters the police in his lifetime, Pamela says, there are three rules. 1. Keep your head up. 2. Your eyes forward. 3. Keep your ego down. If you follow those rules, you should be able to win “the game” and stay alive.
But as the Black Lives Movement has shown, even when you are the savviest of players, sometimes the game is just stacked against you and even in overtime, there’s no winning. Keith A. Wallace portrays three different characters in the source of the hour-long show. He brings the audience, some of whom are very familiar with these rules and some of whom have never heard them, into Jamal’s world slowly. During the first chapter, the entire audience and theater is lit with the house-lights up, but in the last chapter, it’s pitch-black. By the end of the show, the tension is so high and despite the minimalistic stage, that viewer feels like they are the one’s in Jamal’s shoes. This is a feat that’s most difficult to accomplish as Wallace doesn’t have any other actor to bounce off. He changes from character to character seamlessly. Created by Wallace and director Deborah Stein, The Bitter Game brings those cold and factual news stories to life, making them immediate and pressing.
As Wallace lists the African Americans who have died at the hands of police officers and tells the audience to repeat their names after him, the shared, emotional experience is undeniable. The Bitter Game is a strong reminder that live theatre is a powerful tool for invoking larger conversations and like life, theatre can be more when you don’t just passively participate.