by Hugh Hunter
In all probability, you have not heard much about Bruce Graham’s “White Guy on the Bus” (2017), now running at Stagecrafters theater. Maybe that is because, unlike most American plays about race, this one actually has something to say.
The opening scenes are obnoxiously familiar. Well-to-do white people chat about race on the patio of a Bryn Mawr home overlooking a spacious lawn. A beleaguered Ray tries to keep a rein on his outspoken wife, Roz, as she accuses Molly (Gina Williams) of racism. Playing perfect counterpoint, Molly’s husband Christopher (Jeffrey Evans) touts his university thesis about reverse racism in modern TV advertising.
Throughout act one, we return to the banal chatter of these four people. But sprinkled in between are scenes of Ray riding a bus, sitting next to Shatique, a black nursing student. Ray owns a Mercedes. What is he doing on a public bus, and where is he going? Playing Shatique, Rakael Howard never hits a false note as the true meaning of Ray’s odd presence stirs up a swirling pool of thought and emotion.
“White Guy” may be Graham’s best storytelling, a mushrooming mystery that resolves into meaningful action. At first, you do not realize the plot development is so non-linear. Set Designer Richard Stewart uses the light design of Gilbert Todd to take you on a journey between Bryn Mawr and North Philadelphia on a non-judgmental tour of hateful American division.
Director Jane Toczek’s fast pace excites, and her casting is excellent. Without love scenes, you know Ray and Roz are truly in love. Mary Ann Domanska is perfect as Roz, a contrarian who loves to fight. So does Ray, who grew up poor but clawed his way into Wall Street as a “numbers guy” and whose job is “make rich people richer” by any means necessary. These combatants are a perfect match.
As Ray’s true character comes to the fore, you are shocked to realize that with all the chitchat, you really knew nothing about him. Lenny Grossman is chilling in this portrait of a man with passionate, ruthless drive. His Ray understands black pain at the level of outsider recognition, but it means nothing to him because he endures unbearable pain in his own life and acts accordingly.
“White Guy” is both satire and social drama. The play would work better if Graham’s white people talked past each with chatter that is a little more trendy, politically correct and inane. They are profoundly silly; that they sometimes make sense is curiously distracting.
But “White Guy” is not giddy and patronizing as it captures division in America. Ray is both likeable and frightening. His love and hatred are real, and while he and Shatique can use each other, you know why they could never be friends.
Stagecrafters is located at 8130 Germantown Ave. “White Guy on the Bus” will run through Feb 23. Tickets at 215-247-8881 orhttp://thestagecrafters.org