Ray is a man living in two worlds. A white, middle-aged financial analyst with a spacious house in an upscale Philadelphia suburb, he spends his free time attending parties, discussing social issues in an abstract way, and sipping white wine with his stylish wife, Roz. Sure, things could be better at work for them – especially for Roz, who finds teaching at a public school in the city’s toughest neighborhood an endless source of frustration – but they have a life that most people would be jealous of.
Then there’s Ray’s other world. On Saturdays, Ray gets on a public bus and rides it to the end of the line, into a neighborhood very much like the one Roz teaches in. Every week he has a friendly conversation with Shatique, a young black woman whose life is much harder than his. As she sits in her seat clipping coupons, she tells Ray about her many challenges: she’s working, she’s studying nursing, she has a brother in prison, and she has a 9-year-old son she only gets to see once a week.
So, why is Ray on the bus with Shatique every week? When she asks him, he just smiles and changes the subject. Eventually, though, he reveals the reason – and it’s a reason that will change both of their lives profoundly.
White Guy on the Bus, Bruce Graham’s new play at Passage Theatre, is a compelling work that addresses race relations and other hot-button issues. A lot of ugly things get said – things that are likely to leave some audience members angry. But the play never feels preachy; almost every provocative statement gets challenged by another character. Graham takes the time to develop his characters so that you can understand their motivations clearly. And in Ray, he gives us a character you can feel sympathy and anger toward at the same time. Is he just a man seeking justice after suffering a tragedy? Or is he a racist who uses that tragedy to justify his bigoted actions?
Graham tries to have it both ways in this play: White Guy on the Bus is mostly a provocative parlor drama in its first act, while elements of a revenge thriller seep in to the second act. But the play’s construction works well, revealing characters’ viewpoints early on and then having those characters face the consequences of their viewpoints.
The play moves backwards and forwards in time, though the audience isn’t conscious of that at first. And scenes overlap, allowing Ray to move effortlessly between his world of privilege and his world of bus fares. Director Michelle Tattenbaum’s fluid staging makes a potentially confusing setup crystal clear. And Jeffrey Van Velsor’s set design, with scenery moving quickly into view via spinning walls, allows for graceful scene changes.
Greg Wood is terrific as Ray, always in command and always on the verge of a sharp, passionate outburst. Yet he’s also capable of quietly affecting moments, such as a scene at the end of act one where his chin and lips quiver as he deals with a devastating blow. Danielle Lenée is supremely forceful as Shatique, especially in the final scenes where the fury caused by a lifetime of hurt and denial comes to the fore.
Susan Riley Stevens brings the right mixture of elegance, abrasiveness and sardonic wit to Roz, a woman for whom conversation is “a full contact sport.” And Nate Washburn and Laura Chaneski have some excellent moments as a young couple who become involved in a series of arguments with Roz.
White Guy on the Bus asks hard questions about its characters, and about society as a whole. Oddly enough, though, what helps make it so satisfying is that it doesn’t answer all of those questions. But that’s OK – you’re likely to spend a lot of time thinking about those questions in the days after you see this incendiary, timely and essential new play.
Running Time: Two hours, including an intermission.
Playwright Bruce Graham Discusses His Artistic Process and Thought Process for “White Guy on the Bus” by Deb Miller.