Bruce Graham's take on racial tension is as black-and-white as it sounds.
In Philadelphia playwright Bruce Graham’s two previous outings at Northlight, The Outgoing Tide and Stella & Lou, I’ve found his work to be mawkish and sentimental. Above all else, Graham’s plays were inoffensive. Not so of White Guy on the Bus, whose very title announces the level of sensitivity it’s going to bring to the subject of race.
We meet the titular white guy, Ray (Francis Guinan, balancing his regular flustered geniality with a driving menace, as we’ll see), in a series of social gatherings with his wife, Roz (an acerbic Mary Beth Fisher), a high school teacher in gritty North Philly, and a younger couple: Christopher (Jordan Brown), a former neighbor kid who became a sort of surrogate son to the childless Ray and Roz, and Christopher’s fiancée Molly (Amanda Drinkall), who also works in education, but at a wealthy, mostly-white school in tony Bryn Mawr.
We’re meant to see that Ray, who works in finance making rich people (and himself) richer as a self-professed “numbers guy,” is a good man because he came from a poorer childhood, disapproves of his younger employees who care more about profit than “the big picture,” and feels conflicted about the value of his work; he’s constantly telling Roz that they should sell their big house and go Thoreau-simple.
Ray tends to take a backseat, though, in these first-act social scenes. They mostly come down to confrontational dialogues between Fisher’s Roz, who’s presented as a teacher of equal parts dedication to her disadvantaged students and cynicism about their prospects, and Drinkall’s Molly, whom Graham paints as idealistic and naïve.
Fisher, an actress of divine skill and empathy, is asked to sell a repugnantly pessimistic view of racial disadvantage—not class disparity, or income inequality, or any number of other more nuanced views of what might put Roz’s students further behind the starting line than Molly’s college applicants.
And that’s before we’ve even touched on Ray’s bus rides with Shatique (Patrese D. McClain), which are interspersed among the other scenes in Act I. Graham keeps it unclear for a while why Ray is on this bus every week, where he’s, as promised, the only white guy, or why he makes a point of befriending Shatique. When we do learn exactly what’s going on, right before intermission, it’s so obnoxiously sensational you could imagine daytime soap-opera showrunners turning it down.
The racial politics of Graham’s plot do get more complicated from there, if by complicated you mean the white people have their worst prejudices confirmed and the one black person onstage is made to admit she hates white people. In fact, the obsessiveness with which race comes up in these scant few conversations—mostly among a close-knit group of affluent white people—tends to beggar belief.
When Ray asks Shatique why she keeps bringing up the race card—right around the time he (spoiler alert) nearly chokes her to death in her own home stemming from his newfound racial hatred—I lost track of whether Graham had a message beyond “You’re right, white folks, black folks should try harder.”
BJ Jones’s wildly talented cast commits their all to the entire conceit. But seeing White Guy on the Bus on opening night, amid an almost entirely older and white Skokie audience—most of whom I have a hard time imagining taking a bus—left me wishing Graham had left his race card up his sleeve.
Northlight Theatre. By Bruce Graham. Directed by BJ Jones. With Francis Guinan, Patrese D. McClain, Mary Beth Fisher, Jordan Brown, Amanda Drinkall. Running time: 1hr 45mins; one intermission.