The playwright Harrison David Rivers has never been afraid to mine his own life as inspiration for his work. In his play “The Bitter Earth,” produced at Hartford Theaterworks last winter, the dynamics of his own interracial relationship provided a jumping-off point to explore issues of race, class, and sexuality. In “the bandaged place,” which will have its world premiere this fall in New York, Rivers unearthed a violent event from his past to write about healing from trauma through the mending of family relationships.
“Most of my plays spring from either things that have happened to me or questions I have about things that have happened to me,” says Rivers, 40, in a recent Zoom interview. “I don’t think of it as therapy, necessarily. But it’s a way for me to process the world around me, which is full of minefields.”
Rivers’s “we are continuous” may be his most autobiographical work yet, drawn from his experiences as a gay man growing up in a family in which his sexuality was rarely discussed, his fraught yet loving relationship with his parents, and his HIV diagnosis in 2018. The play receives its world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival Aug. 2-14, directed by Tyler Thomas and starring Leland Fowler, Tom Holcomb, and Brenda Pressley. The play was commissioned by Williamstown in 2019 and continues Rivers’s ongoing association with the theater, where his play “Where Storms Are Born” was produced to warm reviews in 2017.
Told in a shifting series of direct-address monologues from its three characters, “we are continuous” centers on the close bond between a writer, Simon (Fowler), and his mother, Ora (Pressley). When he was younger, she was his confidante, protector, and champion. But as a teenager, Simon came out to her and his father, devout evangelical Christians, and their dynamic changed. For years, they rarely spoke about his sexuality or his relationships. After his parents chose not to attend his wedding to his now-husband (Holcomb), their relationship fractures. When he’s diagnosed with HIV, will that revelation be too much to handle? And can his mother’s unconditional love for her son endure?
“I’ve always been really interested by my mother because she’s an incredible woman, outgoing, bubbly, and super-smart but also quite opaque in that I never really know how she feels about things politically or socially,” says Rivers, who grew up in Kansas and now lives in St. Paul, Minn. “She tends to side with my father. They’re a team, and I respect that arrangement. But in my life as a gay man, that’s always been a bit sticky.”
The play, he says, is “an opportunity for me to pretend like I had unlimited access to my mother and for her to tell her side of the story, which is completely pulled from my imagination but certainly influenced by her reactions to moments in my life.”
Indeed, many of the events described in the play are drawn from his life. “I don’t necessarily know what conclusions my mother drew from [those events]. But this was an opportunity to hear from this person I love tremendously and yet can’t always share everything she’s feeling because our relationship has some limits in terms of our ability to express things to each other.”
Writing the play, Harrison says, was an act of empathy. “It’s really easy as a young person to fixate on your side of the story and to put to the side everybody else’s experience of that same event and the ways in which it might have changed them or altered their perspective.”
Considering the nation’s current polarization, Rivers says, “we should be thinking about what it’s like to see the world from somebody else’s perspective. I look at my mother with a lot more grace than I did before, and there’s a newfound wellspring of love for this woman who contains multitudes that I don’t have access to.”
In his own life, Rivers says his HIV diagnosis was a “rallying point” for his family, which includes three younger brothers. “There’s something about being faced with the mortality of someone you love. Hearts are softened. I’m not sure beliefs have changed but the compassion has increased.”
When director Thomas first read the play, she felt that Rivers had “captured this balance between something that’s utterly thrilling, that takes you on a relentless ride, but is heartfelt and tender and curious at the same time.”
The set features a living room that’s broken in two, each side reflective of the different worlds of mother and son. “So there’s a continuousness that’s being interrupted,” she says. “And then how do you create a blueprint where the actors can spend most of their time with the audience as a scene partner for the monologues, but where they can also walk around their own memories and relive their stories?”
In the play, the characters must decide whether to bridge the chasm and figure out how to renew their bonds. “The play is about three brave individuals who, despite their fear, despite their misgivings about each other and about the world they find themselves in, have chosen to share their hearts,” Rivers says. “They’re choosing to be vulnerable with the audience, with each other.
“There’s no real connection without vulnerability. And I believe that connection — finding ways to connect with each other no matter our beliefs, affiliations, etc. — is key to bettering the world we live in.”
WE ARE CONTINUOUS
Presented by the Williamstown Theatre Festival. At ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance, Nikos Stage, Williamstown. Aug. 2-14. $65. 413-458-3253, www.wtfestival.org
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.