If America were a king in a Greek play, his tragedy—the circumstance he can’t evade, the sin for which he can never atone—would be slavery. For all its horror, the subjugation of Native Americans can be viewed as a tectonic motion of history. One plate sliding bloodily over the other. Slavery was a business strategy. Sure, plenty of us think the Civil War paid the price for black servitude in lives, money, and legislation. But as events from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln right on through to the demonization of Barack Obama and the choking of Eric Garner attest, the War Between the States was just the gods’ way of warming up.
Bruce Graham’s White Guy on the Bus demonstrates how completely fucked-up we all remain as a result of crimes that only technically ended 150 years ago. Not that this Northlight Theatre world premiere is about slavery per se. As far as I can recall, the word never gets mentioned. But Graham’s 21st-century Philadelphians don’t need to talk about it any more than a fish needs to discuss water. They’re swimming in it.
The white guy of the title is Ray, a self-described “numbers man” who’s spent a long career in finance “making rich people richer.” Though the job suits his fastidious temperament, he longs to be free of fastidiousness and continually whines to his wife, Roz, about selling their posh suburban manse, cashing in their considerable assets, and going just anywhere, a la Gauguin. Roz, however, won’t hear of it. Tough and blunt, with a hard-earned if obnoxious sense of her own rightness, she’s utterly dedicated to her work as an inner-city high school teacher—so much so that she often says she won’t quit until they carry her out.
Well, guess what.
Because of Graham’s cagey dramatic structure, it takes a while to realize that something very bad has happened, that one of Roz’s students is responsible, and that Ray isn’t riding the bus to cut down on carbon emissions. He’s en route to revenge, you might say. And, in his fastidiousness, he’s worked out an elaborate plan to get it, the linchpin of which is one of his fellow riders: a young, black woman named Shatique.
Shatique’s bio reads like something out of minority central casting. Or a Jennifer Lopez movie. A single mom who works in health care and boards her son at his grandma’s house because it’s located in a gang-free neighborhood, she’s ghetto-bred but aspiring, as honest as she is poor, and the sister of a guy serving a life term in prison. The all-boxes-checked perfection of her bona fides can come across as stereotyping on Graham’s part, until you realize that it’s not Graham but Ray who’s checking off the boxes. Numbers man that he is, he’s done his research, filled his dossiers, even called in a private investigator. Shatique meets his criteria. He makes her an evil-minded offer she may or may not be able to refuse.
And it’s in the fraught negotiation between Ray and Shatique—with its power differential, its edge of violence, its very American sense of race as destiny—that the modern resonances of slavery vibrate most viciously.
I wouldn’t have believed that Graham had this in him. When Northlight Theatre produced his dementia melodrama The Outgoing Tide in 2011, I thought it’d be an insult to animal intestines to call it a load of tripe. White Guy on the Bus can be called tricksy and conventional and contrived and maudlin, and I’m probably betraying my standards by liking it as much as I do. Still, when the time comes to put up or shut up, it most definitely puts up.
Of course, it’s got the extraordinary Francis Guinan onstage as Ray, supplying no end of unostentatious putting-up nerve. Guinan’s Ray reminds me a lot of my father: an essentially good soul from an urban ethnic enclave who did all right for himself and appreciated what he had even if it didn’t fulfill his fondest dreams—but who retained enough of the old-neighborhood tribalism that he could respond with cold-blooded force when he felt something of his own was threatened or vengeance was required. My dad knew certain people; Ray is rich enough to buy certain people. Their impulses and ends, though, are the same.
Patrese D. McClaine doesn’t back down in the face of Guinan’s onslaught. Far more than the sum of her cliches, McClain’s Shatique is appalled at Ray but capable of meeting him on equal terms of rage.
Mary Beth Fisher, meanwhile, has the no-nonsense Roz down pat—which may suggest the need for her to find other kinds of characters to play. Jordan Brown and Amanda Drinkall acquit themselves well in roles that appear significant but exist mainly for texture.