The 2016 presidential election revealed an ugly truth about contemporary American society: more than 50 years after the civil rights movement, we seem to be more divided than ever over issues regarding race and racial inequality.
Bruce Graham’s “White Guy on the Bus,” grapples with that problem as it offers a no-holds-barred exposition of race and privilege in 21st century America. The dialogue is laced with strong language and racial slurs that some may find offensive. But Graham provokes with a purpose: to keep the audience arguing long after the footlights have dimmed.
During the play’s slow-building first act, we meet Ray (Robert Cuccioli), a white middle-aged financial analyst. A self-described “numbers guy,” he makes a lot of money for other people as well as for himself. We watch as he and wife Roz (Susan McKey) survey the pool and manicured garden of their manse in an upscale Philadelphia suburb. Ray is at that point in his career where he wants to trade it all for a paint brush and escape to the South Pacific à la Paul Gauguin. He laments the shortsightedness of his younger coworkers who eschew the “big picture,” for short-term gain.
Roz who teaches underprivileged kids in an inner-city school is in it for the long haul, vowing to stay on the job until they “carry me out.” She gently reminds Ray that his dream is unrealistic: he can’t paint.
Ray and Roz, who are childless, have “adopted” their neighbors’ son Christopher (Jonathan Silver), a Ph.D. candidate whose dissertation deals with the depiction of African-Americans in U.S. television advertising. His wife Molly (Jessica Bedford) teaches in a private academy in tony Bryn Mawr which diminishes her credibility in the eyes of the hard-bitten Roz. Molly loves living in the city, until a pregnancy brings into relief all the problems of urban life.
But Ray is leading a double life. Every Saturday he hops on a public bus and rides until it winds up in a neighborhood much like the one Roz teaches in. He’s struck up a casual friendship with Shatique (Danielle Lenee), a young African-American woman living a hardscrabble existence. Their conversations alternate between polite small talk and racially charged topics.
“There you go with that race thing again,” Ray said during their discussion of the death penalty.
“When’s the last time you saw a rich white man on death row,” Shatique retorted.
“Well, it helps that we don’t murder as many people,” Ray fired back.
“No,” she replied. “You pay to have someone do it for you.”
So why is this wealthy white male riding public transportation? Ray initially brushes off Shatique’s questions. Eventually he supplies a reason, and it’s a reason that ignites a firestorm that changes their lives, and our assumptions, profoundly.
The play moves back and forth in time, although the audience is not immediately aware of that. Bud Martin’s deft direction helps clarify a potentially confusing situation. And Paul Tate DePoo III’s minimalist multi-tiered set design allows for seamless scene changes.
Cuccioli is terrific as Ray, passionate and menacing one moment, calm and tender the next as he recalls a devastating loss.
McKey gives an elegant yet abrasive voice to Roz, a woman for whom conversation is a “full contact sport,” and who is “never dull.”
Bedford and Silver have their moments both in Bedford’s arguments with Roz, and Silver’s reaction to the response to his character’s dissertation proposal.
But special kudos goes to the supremely talented Lenee who offers a forceful Shatique, especially in the final scenes where she struggles to reconcile her dignity with her hopes and wishes as a single mother. The emotional impact of the role on the actress was visibly evident in the final curtain call.
“White Guy on the Bus,” asks some tough questions, but thankfully does not supply a lot of answers. Graham leaves that task to the audience. That’s what good theater does.
“White Guy on the Bus,” runs through February 19th at the Delaware Theatre Company