White Guy on the Bus

By Bruce Grahamnorthlight theatre

Directed by BJ Jones

Produced by Northlight Theatre

Modern Revenge Tragedy is Brutally honest but Fascinating

Northlight Theatre’s promotional materials keep the details of its world premiere play, White Guy on a Bus, under tight wraps. It’s something to do with racial tension, revenge, and a white guy riding a bus. Going into further detail than that would give away some crucial surprises that would detract from the excitement of seeing a brand new play, but might possibly persuade some people for whom that brief description does not provide enough information to arouse their interest to give the work a chance. So what I’ll say for those wishing to read no further is that the play is about much more than one location, and contains arguments over racial perspective that are all the more upsetting because of how sympathetic the characters on both sides are.

northlight theatre

Francis Guinan plays Ray, the title character, a successful banker who is getting burned out on his job. It’s not just that his huge house brings him no happiness, it’s also that the recent college grads he hires are depressingly incompetent. And rather than learn, they keep refusing to take responsibility until he fires them, and he has to worry about being sued for discrimination. About the only parts of his life he enjoys are his wife, Roz (Mary Beth Fisher) and surrogate son, Christopher (Jordan Brown). Roz teaches at a dangerous Philadelphia public school. Her coping mechanisms are cynicism, maintaining enough clout by participating in teaching competitions and publishing poetry so the black administrators can’t scapegoat her, and selecting one student each year for extra mentoring. Christopher is back in school to finish his Ph.D., not something he’s thrilled about, but something necessary for his career as a professor. He thinks he can get more funding than most sociologists by combining his work with marketing, and bases his thesis on the depiction of black men in advertisements. He thinks collecting company directives on how overly positively they must be portrayed at the expense of white and Asian figures will go over well.

Francis Guinan, Patrese D. McClain, horiz

Some tension enters the home with Christopher’s marriage to Molly (Amanda Drinkall), a counselor at a wealthy private school. Though short on experience, she is well-versed in social justice clichés and excuses, resulting in frequent clashes with Roz. We see Ray taking refuge on bus rides past a prison, where he meets and takes a liking to Shatique (Patrese D. McClain), a black woman who makes the trip weekly to visit her brother, who is serving life without parole for murder. Shatique is attending nursing school, and spends more time each week on public transportation than she spends with her son, who lives with his grandmother because Shatique fears for him in her neighborhood. Improbably, she and Ray bond, leading to him making a shocking disclosure and proposal. His life has been torn asunder by an act of extreme violence, and his plot for vengeance involves Shatique and her brother.
Revenge stories always require a certain acceptance of dramatic contrivance, because otherwise they’d only be two scenes long or not happen at all. Graham’s script inverts the usual power dynamic preventing an avenger from reaching his victim. The story is a bit slow getting to the meat of the action, but BJ Jones’s staging builds up to the surprises. I spent much of the first act questioning John Culbert’s scenic design, which includes an astroturf floor in a location that serves as different peoples’ houses, offices, and outside. However, it made much more sense with the revelation that the play is not quite as naturalistic as it first seems.

Mary Beth Fisher, Francis Guinan, vert-1

Jones gets great performances out of his cast. Besides being realistic, more importantly, they were all likable. Drinkall’s character is foolish to be sure, but she lacks the spite, histrionics, and tendency to maliciously misinterpret peoples’ words that is infamous among internet and academic pc-police. She’s actually surprised at Roz’s claim to be called a “white bitch” by her students about twenty times a week and that black kids would beat up Asians. Brown’s Christopher is also earnest and attempts to play peacemaker between his wife and de facto parents. But after already finishing two degrees, he really should have known more about the biases and dogmas of identity politics. (In academia’s defense, this is the first play I have ever seen that had a “diversity consultant,” DePaul faculty member Dexter Zollicoffer, who apparently allowed the criticism of members of his field.) Fisher delivers her cynicism with a snap that seems to come from experience, but you understand there’s a compassionate person underneath. She wanted to bond with Molly, but was unsure how.

Most important to the show’s success are Guinan and McClain’s performances. Guinan’s Ray loves the people close to him dearly, but is a masterful manipulator when he’s not overcome with rage. In one person, you see both the dedicated family man and the cutthroat businessman-turned avenger. I’ve enjoyed Guinan in roles as a bumbling hero and a comedic villain, but he’s equally engaging with this dark character. McClain’s Shatique is also a clever warrior for her family, but I was not bothered by her initial agreeability toward Ray. She has rage of her own, yet for now retains her morals. The power struggle between these two is so painful because they hold nothing back in their condemnations of each other’s entire lives and personal character, and they both make strong cases. It requires some theatrical magic to get these two talking to each other at all, but that’s forgivable because of the drama that contextualizes their dialectic. Graham’s play doesn’t exactly say we’d all be better off if we did that, but it certainly says we’re no good where we are now and where disingenuous oversensitivity has us headed.

Highly Recommended

Jacob Davis

Reviewed January 31, 2015

For more information, see White Guy on the Bus’s page on Theatre in Chicago.

Now playing at Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie. For tickets, call 847-673-6300 or visit Tickets are $25-78, with discounts for students. Plays Tuesdays at 7:30 pm except Feb 3, 10, and 24, Wednesdays at 1:00 pm except Feb 11 and 7:30 pm except Feb 18, Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 2:30 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:30 pm and 7:00 pm except Feb 8. Runs through Febrary 28. Running time is two hours, with one intermission.