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White Guy on the Bus – Theatre Review: iTheatre Collaborative, Herberger Theater Center’s Kax Theater, Phoenix

The opening of playwright Bruce Graham’s most recent work, White Guy on the Bus, floods the wide, expansive set with images of the stock market. They move about in patterns; projected images appearing as they would when enlarged from a widescreen TV monitor, accompanied by a cacophony of overlapping voices from various cable news stations, all reporting on the day’s trading. Then it fades.

For a brief moment, we then see a black woman wearing hospital scrubs, seated off-center. She’s silently riding a bus. We know she’s on a bus because the passing roar of the public transport vehicle was just heard over the fade of the cable news broadcasters. But her image quickly dims. Instead, our attention is focused on the white, middle-aged businessman in the shirt and tie standing center stage, facing us. After a pause, he suddenly announces, “I’m a numbers man.” This is Ray (Matthew Cary), and Ray’s initial appearance suggests he’s about to narrate his story. But like several moments throughout the play that suggests one thing then reveals another, Ray isn’t talking to us at all. It’s the beginning of a conversation he’s about to have with his wife, Roz (Kim LaVelle).

For the next two scenes, there’s another assumption audiences might make. When Ray and his wife leave their comfortable suburban home to visit a much younger couple for the evening, Christopher (Christina Boden) and Molly (Hayla Stewart), the conversation between the four quickly turns confrontational. At first, it appears as though playwright Graham is about to trounce us with a lecture on racism as seen from the point of view of privileged whites. In the case of Ray and Roz, rich, privileged whites.

Roz, who treats conversations as though they were contact sports, is a teacher. Seventy-two percent of her class is black. The younger and less experienced Molly is also a teacher, but Molly doesn’t quite share Roz’s point of view, particularly when the older woman declares, “Molly, you are a racist.” What follows is Roz’s denouncement on the difference between real racism and perceived racism, attitudes evolved from the experience of her challenging day to day life in the classroom. In her own defense, the younger Molly insists that while she may teach in a less threatening urban environment, she still has problems, among them, having to deal with a ‘cutter.’ “Your kids cut themselves,” Roz responds. “My kids cut each other.”

But these two scenes are a setup, successfully lulling audiences into a false sense of direction as to where the play is really going. Ray, from whose point-of-view we see everything – he’s never off-stage – wanders from Chris and Molly’s apartment and seats himself on a bus. Across the aisle from the businessman sits Shatique (Victoria Stokes). Dressed in her scrubs, passing the time of the lengthy journey by cutting supermarket coupons, Shatique and Ray strike up a conversation. Shatique talks of her long days, the hospital, her studies to better herself and hopefully her financial situation, while Ray talks about his life and what he does for a living. “I help rich people get richer,” he explains.

Immediate questions arise. Where is the bus going? And what is Ray even doing there, especially when we know of his lifestyle, his comfortable home, and what kind of car he drives? “Do you really own a Mercedes?” Shatique asks. When Ray answers, yes, she blurts, “So, why are you on this damn bus?” Then things become severely suspicious when Shatique asks him if he’s married. Ray, who up until this moment has done nothing to suggest he’s anything other than a straight dye, suddenly answers, “No.”

Even though the black box theatre setting for iTheatre Collaborative’s new racially incendiary production, running now at Herberger Theater Center’s Kax Theater until September 22, is wide – it stretches from one exit sign in the house to the other – there’s not a lot of room for director Christopher Haines in which to direct his players. Stage-right is the raised patio to Roz and Ray’s home, stage-left will double as both Chris and Molly’s apartment and later Shatique’s place, while center stage becomes the bus and later, a car. Characters can only move within the limited confines of their area, focusing audience’s attention not so much on what the characters do, but on what is being said. If it wasn’t for the scene transitions, where dialog from one time period overlaps into another as Ray wanders from setting to setting, continuing his conversation from one scene while establishing his position in the next, with just a minimum of rework, White Guy on the Bus could be equally effective as a radio drama.

While all five actors are well cast to ability and extremely well played, it’s ultimately the three adults, Cary’s Ray, LaVelle’s Roz, and Stokes’ Shatique that holds attention, particularly Stokes who truly shines in her valley acting debut. Once secrets and motives are fully revealed, the scenes between Ray and Shatique develop into something practically combustible; their force, a combination of great acting interpreting powerful writing under a director’s careful guidance for nuance in both sound and movement. “The death penalty in this country is a joke,” Ray states during one of his meetings on the bus with the nurse. “Not if you’re black,” Shatique dryly responds. And there, in that one brief exchange, is the point of everything that will soon follow.

White Guy on the Bus has the kind of frankness that should and probably will induce discomfort, and that’s clearly the play’s intention. If you came alone, your drive home may be dominated with thoughts of what you’ve just heard while you try to be equally frank with yourself and where you stand. If you came as a group, the discussion in the car may ultimately prove more challenging than simply talking about a play, particularly if things you thought you knew about friends and their attitudes aren’t quite as you initially perceived. “Bet the cops come out to your neighborhood when you call,” states Shatique to Ray, a man who has probably never considered that things could ever be otherwise on the other side of the bus route.

Graham’s play, which is heading towards its final weekend and should be seen, is asking audiences to consider looking at things from a different perspective while acknowledging that to do so is never going to be easy. For some, it’s practically impossible. And for those who think of themselves as being open-minded and realistically fair when stating that all lives matter, fail to understand the movement or to see that what they’re really doing is dismantling the conversation. But the play is asking us to at least try. Because ultimately, if all we do is remain in our bubble, blind to the overwhelming disadvantage of others, then, in the end, we’ll forever be like that white guy on the bus, and that’s never a good thing.

White Guy on the Bus continues at Herberger Theater Center’s Kax Theater until September 22

Pictures Courtesy of Christopher Haines

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