Provocative for addressing touchy subjects with blatant unflinching candor, Bruce Graham’s “White Guy on the Bus” attains full power by adhering to one of the basic elements of theater, storytelling.
Unlike most contemporary playwrights that tackle issues with polemic, pronouncements, definite heroes, and smarmy villains, Graham uses shrewd exchanges of naturalistic conversational dialogue to reveal his characters’ views on myriad topics, the focal point being race relations and racism, actual or perceived.
Graham favors reality over the casual rhetoric or polite (correct?) stances people spout when talking about race. He never walks on eggshells. He makes sure they crack. Graham’s authorial attitude toward the matters he introduces is clear, but he lets you arrive at conclusions by fairly and objectively presenting many sides and facets to an argument or situation, and he neatly depicts how given characters can be construed as biased and prejudiced from one utterance and humane and open-minded from the next. Or vice versa.
“White Guy on the Bus” is a brave, important play because Graham doesn’t couch his characters’ feelings but allows them to put forward ideas that are often danced around or left unexpressed, in plays let alone in life. Graham has no fear or compunctions about letting the controversial have the effect it will. He isn’t interested in absolutes regarding good or bad or in making a thesis. He’s exposing many sides of a complex subject and showing how human nature, the real theme of “White Guy,” decides most courses.
Forget Donald Trump. It’s Bruce Graham who has taken the initiative and courage to have characters of all kinds express what people commonly say and think. Most laudably, he does this by having debates, declarations, disagreements, and defenses arise from normal drinks-and-dinner discussion or from what seems like a random, time-passing conversation on a bus.
In addition to entertaining with lively dialogue and evoking thoughts and reactions with his directness, Graham deftly weaves a mystery and takes his time unwinding it. He piques our curiosity before landing another race-tinged punch. He also uses non-sequential time well to keep us interested in one section of his story while steering us off the scent of another. As in all good plays, everything ties back to a clue or foreshadowing when you think about it. “White Guy on the Bus” not only tells a good story and raises serious thought, but it is superbly crafted and keeps you involved on all the many levels Graham so sure-handedly brings into play.
Graham’s straightforwardness and sincerity are matched by an excellent production by director Michelle Tattenbaum for Trenton’s Passage Theater. Tattenbaum accentuates the reality and sense of unfiltered human nature Graham packs into his story and dialogue. Each character is immediately believable, and each sequence is fraught with tension that stems from life and not theatrical contrivance.
Greg Wood, Susan Riley Stevens, and Danielle Lenee provide great energy and dimension as the main characters. Nate Washburn and Laura Chaneski are equally vibrant and natural in support. Tattenbaum’s staging makes you feel more like a fly on the wall witnessing scenes than like someone watching a play.
The play compels from the beginning. Race comes into the conversation when Christopher (Washburn), a Ph.D. candidate and like an adopted son to Ray (Wood) and Roz (Stevens), mentions his thesis about images of minorities in TV commercials, and Roz talks about the challenge of teaching in the ghetto, a word that startles younger, more idealistic Molly (Chaneski) as wrong to say.
You hear how dedicated Roz is, but Molly is taken aback again when Roz asks her if she would rather her car break down at night in expectedly safe, suburban Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, or in reportedly dangerous North Philadelphia. All of the characters’ stories have a purpose, and this one is to get Molly to make a racially motivated choice after she’s decried Roz as benign racism.
Headier assertions about what is practical and what’s utopian, or at least ‘correct,’ arise when you learn why Ray spends Saturday mornings riding the bus that takes visitors to a Philadelphia prison. The audience is as challenged as the characters to determine the dynamics between Ray and Shatique (Lenee), a passenger with whom he develops a relationship.
In general, Graham’s script is solid and never slips into being preachy, smug, or heavy-handed. The one scene that becomes a bit overwrought is one in which Ray confronts Shatique violently. Ray has an intention in mind, but in this one instance, and only this one, Graham may have put grand dramatics ahead of a more logical interaction.
Greg Wood maintains the cool assurance of a businessman who keeps all facts at his command and has a lot of resources to obtain what he wants. Part of that assurance is a disarming ease that gives Wood tinges of charm and danger. Nate Washburn is simply his character come to life. You see no signs of acting in Washburn’s warm and smooth portrayal. Laura Chaneski is both a good foil to Roz and sharp at conveying Molly’s change in attitude about city dwelling once she expects a child.
Wood is a gem, but Susan Riley Stevens and Danielle Lenee gleam in their respective spheres. Stevens as the uncensored human who says what she believes, faces life with reality and humor, and asserts conflicting ideas can exist side by side in one person, Lenee as the striving woman appalled by the reality that tempts her and challenges her dignity.
Jeffrey Van Velsor’s set looks stark but proves serviceable. Robin I. Shane captures Graham’s naturalism in the costumes. Karin Graybash’s sound design reinforces situations and settings.
White Guy on the Bus, Passage Theater, 205 East Front Street, Trenton. Through Sunday, May 22, Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m., and Sunday, 3 p.m. $25 to $35. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org.