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Review of White Guy on the Bus at Finborough Theatre

Donald Sage Mackay and Joanna McGibbon Credit Helen Maybanks
Donald Sage Mackay and Joanna McGibbon Credit Helen Maybanks

In Bruce Graham’s award-winning play White Guy On The Bus, Ray (played by American actor Donald Sage Mackay) is a money man working in consumer analytics who had made enough money to retire and although there are problems at work, he’s seemingly content with his lot. Roz (Samantha Coughlan) teaches in an inner city high school in “North Philly” where over 90% of the pupils are black or of an ethnic minority; a school where Roz gets called a “white bitch” every day. The couple are white, middle class, liberals who realise how lucky they are living on the right side of the tracks in a home with a swimming pool and manicured laws in the best part of Philadelphia, the poorest big city in the USA. The other couple we meet are Christopher (Carl Stone) who’s training to be a teacher and is the son Roz and Ray never had and his new wife Molly (Marina Bye).

On the Finborough’s traverse stage, is a simple set of chairs, two at either end of the stage that represent the bus from the title of the play and four chairs in the middle that represent the home of Roz and Ray. There is a fifth character, Shatique (Joanna McGibbon) a young, black girl who’s sitting on one of the eponymous bus seats from the start and although we don’t hear from her for a while, she soon becomes an integral part of the plot.

For most of the early part of the play, the two couples have deep, contentious arguments over race. Molly has no real experience of racism but has lofty ideals and theories whilst Roz lives with racism every day and tries to explain to Molly what life is really like for deprived, inner-city kids. It seems as this is going to be one of those wordy, worthy plays about how race and racism can be discussed at a dinner party by white liberals who don’t have to live on the wrong side of the tracks, but then something happens that certainly isn’t signposted, and everyone’s lives take a turn for the worse.

There a great fluidity to Bruce Graham’s play which was first performed in Chicago in January 2015 with this being its European premiere. There’s a lightness of touch in Jelena Budimir’s direction, with almost cinematic overlapping dialogue and in the way the piece plays with place and time. For a long time, we don’t know why Ray sits on the bus and strikes up a dialogue with student nurse Shatique, but when we learn what his motive is, the plot takes the audience in a totally unexpected direction.

All the performances are excellent, but the two standouts are Donald Sage Mackay who makes Ray’s journey – both literal and metaphorical – believable. His life is turned upside down by a terrible event (no spoilers in this review) and he changes from a seemingly mild-mannered businessman into a man seeking a terrible revenge. The other superb performance is from Joanna McGibbon as Shatique who as the poor, struggling student nurse with a young son, goes from someone who is doing the best she can to live her life and bring up her son in difficult circumstances to having to make a life-changing decision that she really doesn’t want to.

At its heart White Guy On The Bus is a play about them and us; them being poor, deprived ethnic minorities and us being white, middle class, comfortable liberals. It’s an intelligent treatise on race and racism that could have been a bit clichéd and boring but it has an unexpected twist that takes it in a surprising direction which totally engages the audience so they look at what could be seen as a subject that’s been done to death, in a completely different light.

The end which was somewhat abrupt, leaves us with the message that if you’re white and have some money, you’ll have a much better chance in life than if you’re black, poor and underprivileged. White Guy On The Bus is a well-told tale with a moral to ponder long after the audience wanders off into the night.

4 stars

Review by Alan Fitter

Ray and Roz are a white, liberal couple living in the safe, staid suburbs of Philadelphia. He is a financial consultant who makes “rich people richer”. She is a passionate teacher who commutes every day to educate the mainly black students of an inner-city school.

On the face of it, life runs smoothly. But Ray seems to hanker after change. He leaves his Mercedes in the drive, and takes to riding the public bus through the African-American neighbourhoods of the city the only white guy on the bus.

Ray becomes a regular on the same route as Shatique a young, black single mother who is studying to become a nurse, and determined to make a different life for her 9-year- old son. They strike up a relationship. But what does Ray really want from Shatique?

Bruce Graham’s excoriating and shocking play blows open the racial fault-lines of Trump’s America. With an all too familiar resonance here in the UK, it questions us all – what deals are we willing to make, and with which devils?

The European premiere
by Bruce Graham.
Directed by Jelena Budimir. Designed by Sarah Jane Booth.
Presented by Precious Panda Theatre in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre.
Cast: Marina Bye. Samantha Coughlan. Donald Sage Mackay. Joanna McGibbon. Carl Stone.

Tuesday, 27 March – Saturday, 21 April 2018


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