By Bruce Graham
Directed by Bud Martin
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
What is clear about Bruce Graham’s “White Guy on the Bus” is that white privilege drives the engine of racism in America. In a compelling performance as successful financier Ray, Robert Cuccioli gives that protagonist rich layers of contempt for all things that might threaten his privileged status. Additionally, this contemptable character seems to have difficulty controlling an undercurrent of anger that flows freely unmanaged. This combination of rage and privilege – handily portrayed by Mr. Cuccioli – makes for an interesting story line, despite the play’s frequent forays into unrelated thematic territories.
The action of the play focuses on Ray’s motivation for riding a bus on Saturdays – the bus that terminates at a prison – and on his motivation for sitting next to and striking up a conversation with Shatique (Danielle Lenee) riding the bus to visit her imprisoned brother who is “in for life” on a murder conviction. That motivation is provided in a series of flashback scenes with Ray and his wife Roz (played with just the right core of annoying self-serving by Susan McKey), their “adopted” son Christopher (played with just the right millennial matrix by Jonathan Silver) and his new wife Molly (played with a naïve yet complex core by Jessica Bedford) who provide the exposition needed to understand Ray’s motivation to be on the bus with Shatique.
“White Guy on the Bus” is one stereotype piled atop another. Ray dreads having an intern when she is a person of color because it is more difficult to fire her. So, he always “covers his ass.” Feigning concern, Roz spews liberal rhetoric about her underserved urban high school students – especially for her current “project” Nazir who “can’t read – but then easily quips that they “cut each other” and on a Friday night are “out robbing a 7-11.” Molly, who teaches in an all-white suburban school, tries to challenge Roz about her comments while championing an even “higher” level of liberal-speak; however, when she is expecting her first child, she wants nothing to do with living in “the city.”
Although it might be realistic that five people cannot stand one another for a variety of reasons involving race, sex, and money, that dynamic does not necessarily make for good theatre. Interesting characters with complex and believable conflicts that drive a compelling plot make for good theatre. Unfortunately, Mr. Graham’s characters seem more stock than well rounded and experience no growth. Their conflicts are so stereotypical that that the dramatic arc of the play leaves the audience without any catharsis. And some of the action of the play is simply not believable. That action cannot be disclosed without a spoiler alert. It is enough to say that something horrific happens to Roz which lands Ray on the bus as the only white guy.
Mr. Graham takes on too much in his play and in doing so lessens its overall impact. Had the playwright focused on the relationship between Ray and Shatique, “White Guy on the Bus” would have been able to raise more enduring and rich questions about the significant issues of race in America. Instead, the playwright meanders into tangential, albeit important, themes about Ray’s mysterious unresolved anger issues, corporate human relations departments, prison administration, and coupon-clipping. It would be good to know why Ray is so angry and why Shatique decides to trust Ray. Ms. Lenee delivers a strong and forcible performance as the young woman of color trying to “make it” in a world determined to keep her from achieving her goals. The actor knows when to simmer and when to “boil over.”
Some critics of the current administration see it benefitting from the fears of the privileged at the cost of the vulnerable. If there is an important message in Mr. Graham’s play, that might be it. Tyrants – and there is a bit of the tyrant in all of us after all – thrive on fearmongering and pitting race, gender, sexual status, and faith against one another. The turbulence weakens those under the tyrant’s rule and ensures the tyrant’s position and power. Ray is a tyrant who benefits from the fears of his family and peers at the cost of Shatique and her imprisoned brother. Under Bud Martin’s astute direction, Mr. Cuccioli and Ms. Lenee successfully bring that dynamic to the stage at 59E59 and it is that dynamic that deserves – and receives – the full attention of the audience.