WHITE Guy on the Bus is a little bit like a good book. It starts slowly but grows on you the more immersed you become in its pages.
Written by Philadelphian Bruce Graham, this play seems to be drifting along to begin with – involving for the most part catty verbal exchanges between two strong women. But it soon notches up a level or three, ultimately making for riveting viewing. Will he? Won’t he? Will she? Won’t she? Eat your heart out John Grisham.
Race lies at its heart. Roz (a magnificent Samantha Coughlan) is a teacher in a challenging Philadelphian school where racial issues bubble away like scalding water in a cauldron. She is often called a white bitch by pupils but it is water off a duck’s back as far as she is concerned. Her jaw is firm and strong.
Roz is good at her job, self-assured and has an opinion on everything and everyone – for example, she believes her principal, an Afro American, is a racist because of her attitude towards the Asian pupils.
Headstrong Roz is married to Ray (Donald Sage Mackay), a successful financier who is all for selling up and moving away from Philadelphia’s suburbs. Hard-nosed, yes, but also manipulative as we soon discover.
Into the mix are thrown Ray and Roz’s son Christopher (Carl Stone) and his wife Molly (Marina Bye). Compared to Ray and Roz, they are somewhat wishy washy and right on. They live in the heart of Philadelphia – with its diversity of race, smell and sounds. Molly derides the fact that her husband’s parents live in the all-white suburbs and she does not like the way Roz speaks about the children she teaches. Her liberalism is only skin deep as we discover at the play’s end. She is fickle as a feather in the wind.
Tensions simmer away but it is when Roz is victim of a dreadful pupil crime that the simmering turns into boiling. Ray is stung into seeking revenge, using a woman (Shatique, played by Joanna McGibbon) that he has struck up a relationship with on a bus to help him out. Why Ray, the only white man on the bus, is travelling on public transport remains unexplained. Given the money he earns from rich white people, he could travel anywhere he wants in style – in a chauffeur driven Cadillac.
It is at this stage that the racial undertones of White Guy on the Bus start to scald. Ray turns into a white overlord who believes money can buy him power, control over those less fortunate than him, and immunity from the full force of the law. It is Shatique, the hard working black woman who endures an horrendous bus journey every week to see her brother in gaol, that feels the full force of Ray’s racism.
A powerful tale of a powder keg of a City with some wonderful lines from the pen of Graham. ‘You’re crazier than a rat on crack’ is Shatique’s view of Ray. Spot on, ‘You want to own me’ – again Shatique to Ray. And again, spot on.
White Guy on the Bus is must see theatre, intelligently directed by Jelena Budimir within the confines of Finborough Theatre (hats off to Sarah Jane Booth for the simple but effective set design). For the most part, Shatique remains on stage, sat on her bus seat with Ray stepping out of one scene and into the seat beside her. Clever.
But it is the actors who shine above the sounds of Philadelphia. No one more so than Coughlan. Ballsy, sassy and utterly convincing. Her performance alone is worth the ticket price. Mackay is also quite brilliant in slowly revealing the rather objectionable individual that Ray is. A stereotypical financier, but with borderline psychotic tendencies.
Another success story for Finborough Theatre.