I’m always skeptical when told that a play is going to shock and startle me, particularly when the play’s about race. Almost daily I watch spokespeople for Black Lives Matter on talk shows and hear commentators speculate about who will get the black vote that Barack Obama commanded. I read about the trials — and lack of trials — for white cops who killed black teenagers. And what could be more shocking than George Zimmerman’s recent attempt to sell the gun with which he murdered Trayvon Martin as the teenager walked along a Florida street with a bag of candy, wearing that universal sign of criminality: a hoodie. Meanwhile, Facebook abounds with posts from white liberal friends, many of them academics, all genuinely outraged by racism, though some are so preoccupied with lamenting their own privilege that they turn what should be a crucial discussion on class, race and history into yet another opportunity to contemplate their navels. On almost every level, race in this country is complicated, difficult, angry, self-conscious and unhappy. Redress is desperately needed. But is there really anything new to say?
Maybe not. But in White Guy on the Bus, Bruce Graham has framed the issue in a way that’s a genuine slap to the face, taken preconceptions and held them up to a soul-shriveling light, tossed grenades. The black folks in the play feel empathy, do terrible things, wrestle with issues of integrity and justice just like white folks, neither more noble nor more vicious. You actually see only one black character, Shatique (Jada Dixon), who struggles to raise and protect her nine-year-old son, LeShaun, but several others are part of the play’s pressing reality: the illiterate student whom cynical but well-intentioned teacher Roz (a sympathetic Dee Covington) tutors after school; the unnamed grandmother who takes care of Shatique’s child; Shatique’s imprisoned brother, who’s capable of both murder and a terrible generosity.
The white man who befriends Shatique during his regular rides on the bus — which goes to the state penitentiary, we learn — is Ray, Roz’s husband, a wealthy investment banker. Childless, Ray and Roz have semi-adopted Christopher (Andy Waldschmidt), now a graduate student working on a thesis about the way black men are portrayed in advertising: always positively and in positions of power, he notes. Oddly, Christopher seems never to have shared his topic with his politically correct adviser before completing the research. Like Roz, Christopher’s wife, Molly (Rachel Bouchard), is a teacher – only her students come from wealthy families, and their problems are more likely to involve depression and body image than savage abuse and gunfire. Molly is a good liberal, and feels virtuous for living in a racially mixed part of town.
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Having encountered these people, you’re expecting a play like so many we see these days: clever explorations of ideas in living rooms and kitchens, perhaps a moment of truth. But Graham isn’t going the easy route. There’s a shocking disclosure, time hiccups and violently unexpected action erupts as characters act on their deepest and most atavistic beliefs. Smoothly sophisticated Ray reveals a psychopathic rage to control — control being his absolute right as one of society’s winners. Shatique achieves what she most wants, but at a terrible price to her soul. Christopher and Molly skate through, relatively unscathed. And ultimately Ray escapes completely.
If you’re white, as most of the audience was at Curious Theatre the night I saw White Guy on a Bus, you can see all this as an invitation to examine your own privilege – and perhaps it is. But you can also see it in a far bigger frame, as a parable of white power, both at home and overseas.
Directed by Chip Walton, the production is impeccably staged and acted, with Bouchard bringing a shy charm to the role of Molly and Waldschmidt giving us a Christopher who just might be a junior version of Ray. Sam Gregory’s Ray stands astride the evening, fascinating to watch at every moment, whether he’s maintaining a civilized veneer or allowing flame-spitting anger to break through. But it’s Jada Dixon, sitting in shadow during the evening’s final moments, who commands your attention. You see it all on her face – Shatique’s weariness, rage and pain; her intense and terrible loneliness – and can only wonder at the courage it takes to reveal such emotional depths.
Presented by Curious Theatre Company through June 24, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, curioustheatre.org.