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White Guy on the Bus

Divisions between people along racial and class lines are nothing new in this world. One can go as far back as history is recorded and see how the privileges of ruling groups are maintained via artificial1 and manufactured2 means. But here in the United States, where the illusion of equality and equal opportunity is central to national identity, such divisions are especially insidious. This is particularly problematic in the minds of white people, a great number of whom fail to see how the privilege they enjoy, based on their color, serves as a general enabler and as a passport to economic success.

(Left to right) Rachel Bouchard as Molly, Andy Waldschmidt as Christopher, Sam Gregory as Ray, and Dee Covington as Roz
(L to R) Rachel Bouchard as Molly,
Andy Waldschmidt as Christopher,
Sam Gregory as Ray,
and Dee Covington as Roz
Photo: Michael Ensminger
In the regional premiere of Bruce Graham's White Guy on the Bus, the title character, Ray (Sam Gregory), is an impeccably dressed (spot-on costumes by Markas Henry), self-described "numbers guy," who makes a substantial living working in the financial services industry. His success enables his wife, Roz (Dee Covington), to work in an inner city school system, teaching underprivileged minority high school students how to read, as well as other basic skills.

Ray and Roz, who are childless, have informally adopted Christopher (Andy Waldschmidt) as their son, and spend time with him and his wife Molly (Rachel Bouchard). Christopher is a PhD candidate whose thesis involves the depiction of African-Americans in U.S. television advertising, while Molly teaches at a cushy suburban school, which diminishes her credibility in Roz' eyes.

Sam Gregory as Ray and Jada Suzanne Dixon as Shatique
Sam Gregory as Ray
and Jada Suzanne Dixon as Shatique
Photo: Michael Ensminger
So far, all of this remains within our comfort zone, as we, a predominantly white audience, fall into our cocktail-hour liberal personae, where we assure ourselves that we are not racist or elitist. Then and thereafter, Graham cleverly interrupts our sequential assumptions and forces us to consider where, in the timeline of the story, each scene may belong, and how this changes our perception of events.

In another of the various evocative minimalist set spaces (by Michael Duran, with sublime transitional lighting by Shannon McKinney), Ray gets on an inner city bus line each Saturday and strikes up an ongoing conversation with Shatique (Jada Suzanne Dixon). In between these polar opposite settings—the safe suburban home and the edgy inner city bus line—a series of heinous events pass before us, bringing us to question our kneejerk instinctive and egoistic reactions, which reveal our learned racism.

At every level, Graham challenges us—in our living rooms, at work, in our schools, in public—conjuring a atmosphere in which we are forced to admit the pervasiveness of race in determining our opportunities and choices. For this, and despite some necessary, but at times cerebral forays into the theatre of ideas, the play demands to be a part of the ongoing national dialogue on race, not to mention the questions it begs concerning the more general requirements for our collective evolution.

At the center of this firestorm is a scene between Ray and Shatique that defines the current power relationship between whites and blacks in this country. Gregory is the livewire that electrifies this confrontation and, indeed, amplifies what entitlement and white privilege is all about. Dixon's pushback is equally palpable, caught between Shatique's hopes and wishes as a single mother, her pain over her brother's incarceration, and her dignity that is threatened by Ray's proposition.

Jada Suzanne Dixon as Shatique
Jada Suzanne Dixon as Shatique
Photo: Michael Ensminger
The more complex aspects of white privilege are apparent in Roz' critique of Molly's naïvité, where the young woman's experiences in her well-supported school district cloud her views on what happens elsewhere, while Roz' compulsion to help those most in need ends in tragedy. Covington arms Roz with a saucy tongue and political certainty that lands some hard blows on Molly and on us. Later, about to become a mother, Molly makes an decision that parallels that of Shatique, underscoring basic similarities that cut across the entire human race, while highlighting the emotional differences based on race and class: Bouchard's ease here provides powerful dramatic contrast to Dixon's high-stress moment.

(Left to right: Sam Gregory as Ray and Andy Waldschmidt as Christopher
Sam Gregory as Ray
and Jada Suzanne Dixon as Shatique
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Another aspect of white privilege is spotlighted when Christopher's PhD dissertation is shot down for its non-PC conclusions regarding TV advertising images of blacks running corporations and enjoying upper-middle-class suburban lifestyles. Yet, despite having his career plans shattered, Christopher has alternate upscale economic opportunities that come with his race and class. Once again, Graham mines a wealth of societal rationalizations and litanies, including a number of gems we hear all the time, as Waldschmidt deftly moves Christopher from idealistic and radical social analyst to a lucrative career in the soulless casinos of the finance industry's various fraud scams.

Given the challenges faced by theatre companies in finding a balance between provocative programming and fundraising, which often result in compromises in the material and with certain subjects being marginalized or altogether verboten, it's worth noting that Curious Theatre has, since its inception, been one of the exceptions to this rule, as we see in this production, which directly challenges the covert elitist assumptions of the so-called "white liberal establishment." It is this commitment that provides us a means of observing and commenting on the larger picture, in which we see an elite financial class exacerbating the issue of race to keep the masses fighting amongst themselves, and to keep the spotlight away from their crimes against humanity; to wit:

"We must keep the people busy with political antagonisms. We’ll therefore speed up the question of (fill in the blank) within the Democratic Party; and we’ll put the spotlight on (fill in the blank) [for] the Republican Party. By dividing the electorate in this way, we’ll be able to have them spend their energies at struggling amongst themselves on questions that, for us, have no importance whatsoever." —US Bankers magazine, 1892 (Sarah E. Van De Vort Emery, Imperialism in America: Its Rise and Progress, Emery & Emery, 1893, pgs 71-72, as quoted in the Chicago Daily Press)

Curious Theatre Company's presentation of White Guy on the Bus, by Bruce Graham, directed by Chip Walton, runs through June 24th. For tickets: curioustheatre.org.

Bob Bows


Footnote:

1 Genetically speaking, race does not exist, only pigmentation differences.

2 Private control over money creation necessarily creates a growing gap between those at the top and those at the bottom of the power pyramid. A number of recent, peer-reviewed studies (including those from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Princeton and Northwestern Universities, as well as Thomas Piketty's bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century) show this to be true.



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