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Philadelphia-based playwright Bruce Graham's White Guy on the Bus picked up some Barrymore Award nominations after its area premiere at Trenton's Passage Theatre last year. It should earn some more for Delaware Theatre Company's fine production, which will transfer to New York City.
This drama, even more timely now, is a study in cognitive dissonance, challenging our assumptions and showing that however awkward discussions about white privilege and race may be, Americans need to have them.
A slow-cooking plot
Graham lets the play simmer, introducing characters whose discussions seem to have little to do with a story. White, middle-aged financier Ray (Robert Cuccioli) tells his inner-city schoolteacher wife Roz (Susan McKey) that he yearns, like the artist Paul Gauguin, "to get away from everything artificial and conventional."
The couple's surrogate son, grad student Christopher (Jonathan Silver), and his Bryn Mawr private-school guidance-counselor wife Molly (Jessica Bedford) join the lively discussions. Roz explains with deep cynicism the challenges of teaching disadvantaged populations (betting, for example, how many times she'll be called "white bitch" in a week); Christopher discusses the ways that advertising portrays falsely optimistic images of minorities.
What seems like chatter, albeit about fascinating issues, actually lays a complex foundation for what's coming. So do scenes in which Ray steps away to sit on a fluorescent-lit bus with Shatique (Danielle Leneé), a black single mom riding from her neighborhood to prison to visit her brother every Saturday.
Then Graham flips the whole play upside down in the first act's final scene: Our assumptions about the timeline are false. A shocking event has occurred, and Ray has an outrageous yet plausible offer for his unlikely new friend. Their combustible negotiation, and the racial issues it forces to the surface, makes the short second act tremendously powerful. Consider, for example, the unlikely circumstances required just to allow a black single mom and a rich white guy old enough to be her father to talk honestly.
The Big Picture
White Guy on the Bus shouldn't be categorized as an issue play, however. Graham makes the characters' feelings sincere and their situations unique. His characters are not stereotypes or talking heads, and they're not played that way in director Bud Martin's well-acted production. Cuccioli plays Ray's white privilege well: not only his self-assurance but his defensiveness, ignorance, and desperation. McKey makes Roz passionately driven, despite her disturbingly funny stories from the trenches. Christopher and Molly are less detailed, yet believable; they enjoy city living as newlyweds, yet insist on leaving once they start a family.
Most genuine and affecting, however, is Danielle Leneé's Shatique, whose cynicism and wariness are balanced by love of family, desire for a better life, and innate intelligence. Her harrowing stories of everyday discrimination ring true. Leneé played the role at Passage and was great there too; let's hope we don't lose her to New York.
Would that Delaware's production served the play better. Paul Tate DePoo III's flat set sticks two clashing walls side by side: one from the suburban world, the other vaguely representing the bus and urban squalor with cold metal beams and plastic sheeting. Actors mainly stand in front of the set in an open area. Except for a busy stock-market motif occasionally spread across the entire two-dimensional set (it's not even important to the play's action and themes), Nicholas Hussong’s projections get washed away. Michael Hahn's sound design suggests locales, but his original music feels tidy and generic, when the play's effect is anything but.
Ray talks of "the big picture," not realizing there's never just one. White Guy on the Bus leaves a chaotic, unsettled feeling because an objective "big picture" doesn't exist. Graham's greatest achievement in this fine and important play may be knocking us -- by which I mean me, and the overwhelming majority of white people in theater seats -- from our comfort zone. He does this not to shock or demean us, but to force us to appreciate our immense American racial divide.
What, When, Where
White Guy on the Bus. By Bruce Graham; Bud Martin directed. Through February 19, 2017, at the Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington, Delaware. (302) 594-1100 or delawaretheatre.org.
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