By Bruce Graham; Directed by Bud Martin
Produced by Delaware Theatre Company
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 4.16.17
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street
by Eleanor J. Bader on 3.14.17
Robert Cuccioli and Danielle Leneé in White Guy on the Bus. Photo by Matt Urban/Mobius New Media Inc.
BOTTOM LINE: The subtle expression of race and class bias is explored in this explosive, provocative drama.
White people don’t use the “N” word in White Guy on the Bus. But that does not mean they’re not racist. Ray (well played by an enraged, conniving Robert Cuccioli), his wife Roz (played with a dynamic mix of bravado and thick-skinned verve by Susan McKey), and their friends, a young couple named Christopher (Jonathan Silver) and Molly (Jessica Bedford), mean well. They’re upper class, white liberals, and until pushed by life circumstances, verbally celebrate diversity and applaud efforts to enhance racial understanding. Watching life unfold from their perch in a lily-white Philadelphia suburb is easy and comfortable.
Roz, however, knows better. A teacher in an inner-city public school, she is well-versed in the ways race, class, and gender discrimination collide to derail all but the most dedicated students. After all, she’s been on the job for decades, has seen the hatred that lurks beneath the surface of presumed racial collegiality, and knows what it’s like to be called a white bitch by students. Still, her nose-to-the-grindstone attitude rests on the belief that each and every student can overcome. Roz is a teacher’s teacher. She works extremely hard—staying late to offer after-class tutoring and counseling to anyone who wants it—and is the epitome of a hard-working public servant. Some students appreciate her.
At the same time, at least one of the kids she sets out to help—Nazir, an illiterate and highly disturbed 15-year-old boy who has fallen through life’s proverbial cracks—resents her and, when his rage is expressed, the gloves come off and an undercurrent of deep racism is revealed.
For his part, Roz’ husband Ray is a financial wizard, a numbers guy who specializes in consumer analytics. He makes an enormous salary and, while he hates the work, he appreciates what it allows him and Roz to afford. Nonetheless, he dreams of quitting. This remains a fantasy, however, until Roz and Nazir have a violent encounter. Revenge then becomes Ray’s raison d’etre. As he looks for someone to retaliate against the boy-child he dubs an animal and worse, he begins riding a city bus filled with women of color who are traveling to see their imprisoned loved ones. His encounter with Shatique (played with both good humor and searing fury by Danielle Leneé) is the play’s moral center, and suffice it to say, nothing about the unfolding drama is as simple as black and white. No one is wholly righteous; neither is anyone wholly bad. Yet the deals we agree to—the concessions we allow in order to feed ourselves and our kin, and the amount of BS we swallow or ask others to swallow—make for an intense and complex dynamic that eschews a trouble-free coexistence.
Rob Denton’s lighting design is magnificent, and projected images of a flower-filled country estate juxtapose with photos of a drab prison encircled by barbed wire to indicate a seamless change of scene. The well-paced dialogue is punchy, pointed, and taut, and numerous tangents—including one in which PhD-candidate Christopher discusses his racially-charged dissertation proposal—are well-woven into the plot.
"I was drawn toward this play because it took me out of my comfort zone," director Bud Martin writes in a handout that is distributed to the audience at the end of the show. "While Bruce Graham may have written this a little over two years ago, I think we can all agree that it is more timely now than ever." White Guy on the Bus kept me up all night and is not feel-good theater. In fact, although racial animosity is presented realistically, Bruce Graham’s script makes it seem insurmountable, intractable, and I walked out of the theater feeling both overwhelmed and sad. I don’t know how to undo the hatred and distrust that are depicted here, but I can’t stop thinking about the limits of liberalism and the need for a deeper, longer, and more sustained conversation about social divisions and bigotry.
(White Guy on the Bus plays at 59E59 Street Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, through April 16, 2017. The running time is 1 hour 50 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 7; Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 3 and 7. Tickets are $70 ($49 for 59E59 members) and are available by calling Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or at 59E59.org.)
White Guy on the Bus is by Bruce Graham. Directed by Bud Martin. Scenic Design is by Paul Tate DePoo III. Costume Design is by Wade Laboissonniere. Lighting Design is by Rob Denton . Sound Design and Original Music is by Michael Hahn. Projection Design is by Nicholas Hussong. Fight Director is Michael Cosenza. Production stage Manager is Jason Weixelman. Assistant Stage Manager is Samantha Honeycutt. Casting is by Stuart Howard.
The cast is Robert Cuccioli, Jessica Bedford, Danielle Lenee. Susan McKey, and Jonathan Silver.