White Guy on the Bus‘ entire cast is four white people and one black woman.
Max Minton’s direction is the imaginative force that brings this Aluminous production of White Guy on the Bus to life. The set design is undeservedly minimal. And yet, without backgrounds or much in the way of props, the audience is free to focus on the careful choreography of the actors, their interactions and movements, and the shifting dynamics of the script itself. But his major accomplishment is in keeping together a narrative coherence as one scene shifts into the next.
In order to convey changes of time and place, the actors, often with the help of stagehands, subtly shift the angle at which they face the audience. The lighting design also locates the actor in the past or present day. In the small theater at The Flight Deck, the actors often come perilously close to the front row. Minton wants the audience to directly engage with the dialogue the characters themselves are having about race, and the limits of their tolerance.
The white guy on the bus is a late middle-aged financial consultant named Ray (Stephen Rexrode). He’s bored with his work but appears to be happily married to Roz (Maureen Williams). They are comfortable enough to retire. At the beginning of the play he insistently asks Roz if they can sell the house and move away from the tedium of his daily life. But she replies matter-of-factly, “I like what I do.” It’s her job as a teacher that’s keeping them stuck in place, but that’s about to change.
Ray and Roz are a childless couple, which may in part explain her professional devotion. She teaches English at an inner-city school where the mostly black students regularly call her “white bitch.” On the one hand, Roz enjoys helping these kids but she also straddles and sometimes crosses the line of coming across as a racist. Ray doesn’t challenge Roz about her attitudes. Every day he sees her dedication and hard work, but Molly, another teacher, (Briel Pomerantz) only hears the worst.
Ray and Roz know Molly through Christopher (Mario Rappa), whose absentee parents were their neighbors when he was a boy. As a latchkey kid, he turned to them as surrogates and they welcomed him into their lives as the son they never had. Now an adult, Christopher and Molly, his wife, have regular dinners with Ray and Roz. The younger couple, at first, act as foils to their more conservative elders. Christopher is in the midst of defending his Ph.D. dissertation on race in advertising, despite Ray’s repeated offer to find him a place at his firm. Molly teaches at a private, mostly white, school. Roz considers her to be naive, but Pomerantz plays her with a healthy amount of liberal smugness.
But the conflict between two white couples isn’t the central problem White Guy on the Bus contends with. In one of those deft scene changes, Ray sits down in the bus seat next to Shatique (Michelle Taylor), a black nursing student. As they slowly introduce themselves to each other, the audience asks the same question Shatique does of Ray: Why is a white man on this bus? She also asks him if he’s married. When he replies with a no, it’s easy to think that this will be a play about infidelity.
By revealing that the story turns out to be a complex examination of white fear and hostility and black inequality is almost saying too much. What does become increasingly clear is that Ray wants something from Shatique — and it’s not prurient in nature. The entire cast is four white people and one black woman. Although she’s outnumbered, the playwright Bruce Graham gives Shatique a strong and distinctive enough voice to provide a proper balance between both the black and white points of view.
On opening night, Minton introduced the play by saying that no other Bay Area theatre wanted to take it on. The subject matter may have been considered too incendiary, or, too of the moment. And it’s not exactly a play that’s meant to heal rifts in either community. But this small scale production deserves a thoughtful viewing and a meaningful discussion after the shock of troubling emotions wears off.
White Guy on the Bus, through Sept. 24, at The Flight Deck, 1540 Broadway, Oakland, 510-858-7383 or theflightdeck.org.