Bruce Graham wrestles with the most sensitive of American subjects in this exploration of racial tension and inequality. Graham, a white, male writer, deals with black oppression and racial inequality with striking candour. This underpins the play’s interrogation of white entitlement, ignorance, and guilt, but tends to override the black perspectives it claims to promote.
The play is set in modern day Philadelphia, one of the most racially segregated cities in America where massive poverty and obscene wealth are plotted along race lines. Graham’s play moves between the comfortable homes of white suburbia and a cramped prison bus, used overwhelmingly by black people, that takes visitors to see their loved ones. The play explores the story of a white guy with ambiguous motives who rides the bus without visiting the prison.
The claustrophobic atmosphere of a crowded, noisy bus is well engineered with a low, humming soundscape and bars of strip lighting overhead, with only two actors actually on stage. The difficulties of setting a play within a moving vehicle are, however, rather explicit. The actors display an unlikely composure, never so much as twitching with the motion of the vehicle. The dialogue would have inevitably lost its intrigue had the actors been wobbling unnaturally in their seats throughout, but perhaps this shows up the incompatibility of the theatre and public transport.
Donald Sage Mackay plays a wealthy businessman, Ray, the eponymous ‘white guy’. During his peculiar bus rides, he befriends Shatique, a kind-hearted black nurse played by Joanna McGibbon who regularly visits her brother – in prison for life without parole. The transitions between these moments and the contrasting scenes of domesticity are blurred, with Ray switching intermittently between the bus and the home, creating a sense of ambiguity around the order of events. He lives happily with his wife Roz, played by Samantha Mcloughlin, a teacher at an inner-city school passionate about her work with underprivileged black students, but disillusioned by the futility of her efforts. They are often joined by Christopher, played by Carl Stone, a neighbour who they dote on as a son, and his girlfriend Molly, played by Marina Bye, a teacher at an affluent, ‘white’ school who frequently clashes with Roz.
The play aims to expose the way racial stereotypes and prejudices manifest themselves and how personal experience can sometimes deflect from the broader issues. Director Jelena Budimir skilfully unravels the implicit racial bias of the white characters, particularly in the arguments between Roz and Molly, one naïve and idealistic, the other weathered and dismissive. These scenes are both funny and agonisingly awkward, and Budimir does well to construct the sense of ignorance and assumption that underpins their beliefs.
We realise Ray’s motivation for riding the bus when he shockingly reveals to Shatique that a difficult student, an illiterate black boy from an abusive, impoverished home, murdered Roz. Vengeful and traumatised, he offers her one hundred thousand dollars if her brother will kill the boy in jail. This consummates the play’s demonstration of the manipulation and forced stereotyping of black people by privileged whites, who incite violence but take none of the blame. Sage Mackay’s development from affable, if narrow-minded, family man, to erratic, violent bully is remarkably good, and carries the play to moments of high, cinematic drama.
The play raises some very thought-provoking ideas about the way racist attitudes manifest themselves, but it is difficult to reconcile the centrality of white people in a play about black oppression. Of course, this artfully reconstructs the social reality, but to what end? We know racial inequality exists, and ritualistically affirming it through the endless musings of white people about society and identity politics seems a waste of theatrical space. The one black character is often just a crutch for Ray’s character development, and her speech is limited to moments of high emotion or trivial small talk. If the concerns and experiences of black people in Philadelphia had been explored as thoroughly as those of the white characters, this production could have been excellent.