Race is America’s original sin, and after 400 years of talking past one another about it, the country is still trying to figure out how to talk to each other about it. This Delaware Theatre Company production of Bruce Graham’s script seems to be in earnest about raising questions that need raising, yet its chief message seems to be that we have yet to figure out how to even start talking about it.
. . .thought-provoking in the most literal sense. . .
Ray (Robert Cuccioli) is a late-middle-age financial analyst married to Roz (Susan McKey), who is a brilliant teacher working in a less-than-desirable school district. They live in the suburbs north of Philadelphia. He is successful, judging from their home, and she has been nominated for the national teacher of the year award. Over the years, they have more or less adopted the kid next door, Christopher (Jonathan Silver), who is working on his doctoral thesis – “Male African-American Images in Television Advertising.” His girlfriend Molly (Jessica Bedford) is a Bryn Mawr graduate working as a career counselor in a well-off school.
The play opens with several minutes of these white, well-off people discussing race. Roz comes at it from her experiences in her inner city school. Molly mouths every white liberal cliché one can imagine. My eyes were rolling before too much had happened, not because the dialogue is off, but rather because I have heard these conversations countless times myself.
Then, the play shifts to a bus, Ray sitting next to Shatique (Danielle Lenee). They strike up a conversation over her coupons and similar small talk, which includes the fact that he is the only white person on the bus. The action shifts back to Ray’s home, then to the bus, then back. Frankly, I was confused by it. It takes some time before one realizes that most of the scenes at his home are flashbacks, and that in between then and the now of the bus, something horrible has happened. Ray’s presence on the bus, next to Shatique, is not happenstance but part of a revenge plot.
Cuccioli and McKey have a splendid chemistry as an aging couple who have maintained their love over the decades. He and Lenee have a different kind of sparks flying between them, but they find as much nuance as the script gives them. Silver and Bedford also work nicely together, and I only wish the script had given us more of the two of them. As it is, they feel slightly two-dimensional in comparison to the other three. Both actors do what they can with what they have been given.
Director Bud Martin has also found the nuggets of gold in the script and has let the actors get the most out of them. Perhaps the most honest exchange is between Ray and Shatique in the second act. “You’re right, Shatique. We’ll never know what it’s like to be black. And guess what? We really don’t give a [expletive deleted by reviewer].” She breaks into laughter, “You’re honest. I’ll give ya that.” Reading it on the page doesn’t do justice to the way the two deliver it. It comes off as a genuine moment of truth.
The show tries to take on the whole matter of race, and to a degree class, and in doing so, it generates heat but precious little light. Yet that was not the playwright’s objective; if the matter could have been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction in a two-hour play, it wouldn’t be much of a social issue. Instead, the play is thought-provoking in the most literal sense of the term. It’s not there to solve the problems of race, class, violence, or anything else. It is there to get the audience to consider the problems and to give them a concrete set of situations in which to talk about the issues.
I often think that the reason we do so poorly in discussing our nation’s original sin is that we have yet to find the vocabulary to do so. “White Guy on the Bus” offers us a few small words that might lead to being able to truly communicate.
Running Time: 2 hours, including one 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: Adult themes and language may make this production inappropriate for some audiences.
“White Guy on the Bus” runs through April 16, 2017 at 59E59 Theatres in New York, NY. For more information and tickets, click here.