White Guy on the Bus
Reviewed – 29th March 2018
“the disarmingly moralistic first half gives way to a searing piece of theatre as insightful as it is brutal”
The poster for the Finborough Theatre’s production of White Guy on the Bus shows a silhouetted figure standing before a blazing inferno, a large house on fire. For the majority of the first act, however, you may find yourself wondering why.
Bruce Graham’s play opens with two overlapping sequences, both revolving around the wealthy, white, and liberal Ray (Donald Sage Mackay). First, we see him at home in suburban Philadelphia, comfortably passing the time with his white, liberal wife Ros (Samantha Coughlan) and his white, liberal friends Christopher (Carl Stone) and Molly (Marina Bye). Later, we find him travelling on a bus, seemingly for no reason, where he meets a young black woman, Shatique (Joanna McGibbon), who is studying for a nursing degree and caring for her son.
At home he, his wife and his friends chit-chat, mostly about their jobs, in Ray’s case a financial consultant who, in his own words, “makes rich people richer”. His wife is a teacher at a tough inner-city school where she keeps a tally of how often she is called “white bitch” each day. Their friend, Molly is also a teacher, though in a wealthier district. Molly’s well-intentioned idealism brings her into conflict with Ros who, due to her experiences at work, believes she is more realistic about racial and class tension in Philly. Meanwhile, on the bus, Ray and Shatique become friends. He tells her his rags-to-riches story, meanwhile she talks to him about the harsh reality of inner city life for a black woman. So far, the piece seems like a slightly predictable take on America’s racial fault lines from the perspective of the titular “white guy”. And then, minutes before the interval, we are plunged into the inferno as promised.
To say any more about the plot would give too much away, but in short, the disarmingly moralistic first half gives way to a searing piece of theatre as insightful as it is brutal. Though it is fair to say that the exploration of racism seems to come more from a white person’s perspective (it is also worth noting that, despite the title, only one non-white character actually appears in the play), Shatique’s storyline is the true heart of the story. Joanna McGibbon perfectly captures her sympathy and strength, especially the sense of loyalty to her son that makes her story in the second act all the more upsetting. Meanwhile Donald Sage Mackay nimbly handles Ray’s transition from a decent, apparently understanding figure into something altogether more horrifying.
Though the piece risks becoming pedestrian at times, its triumph lies in its awareness of the self-perpetuating nature of structural racism. Ray, the “numbers man” can easily trot out statistics about the difference between an average majority-white neighbourhood and an average majority-black neighbourhood but seems unable to ask why these differences exist in the first place. Meanwhile Shatique, though she is friends with Ray, also makes wary assumptions about him and about white people in general. That said, these assumptions are often reinforced by the world she sees around her.
The small space at the Finborough is used to the play’s advantage; at close quarters the savagery of the second act is all the more horrifying. Scenes overlap, with episodes on the bus and at Ray’s home blending into one another, giving a deliberate sense of distorted time. Sarah Jane Booth’s stage design is such that we are only able to tell where we are through dialogue alone.
White Guy on the Bus is not designed as a beacon of hope in the heart of Trump’s America. Quite the opposite. Graham pulls no punches, forcing us to face the true toxicity of class and race divisions. Though it is heavy-handed at times, and though it may not offer any answers, this is a play as relevant as it is ruthless.
Reviewed by Harry True
Photography by Helen Maybanks
White Guy on the Bus
Finborough Theatre until 21st April