Northlight's 'White Guy on the Bus' a fiery examination of race

  • Investment adviser Ray (Francis Guinan), the titular character in Bruce Graham's "White Guy on the Bus," converses with fellow traveler Shatique (Patrese D. McClain), a single mom visiting her incarcerated brother, in Northlight Theatre's world premiere production.

    Investment adviser Ray (Francis Guinan), the titular character in Bruce Graham's "White Guy on the Bus," converses with fellow traveler Shatique (Patrese D. McClain), a single mom visiting her incarcerated brother, in Northlight Theatre's world premiere production. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • Financial adviser Ray (Francis Guinan), right, and his wife, Roz (Mary Beth Fisher), second from right, welcome their "adopted" son Christopher (Jordan Brown) and his idealistic fiancee, Molly (Amanda Drinkall), in Bruce Graham's "White Guy on the Bus," an examination of race in its world premiere at Northlight Theatre.

    Financial adviser Ray (Francis Guinan), right, and his wife, Roz (Mary Beth Fisher), second from right, welcome their "adopted" son Christopher (Jordan Brown) and his idealistic fiancee, Molly (Amanda Drinkall), in Bruce Graham's "White Guy on the Bus," an examination of race in its world premiere at Northlight Theatre. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • Roz (Mary Beth Fisher) reassures her husband, Ray (Francis Guinan), the titular "White Guy on the Bus," in Bruce Graham's examination of race in its world premiere at Northlight Theatre.

    Roz (Mary Beth Fisher) reassures her husband, Ray (Francis Guinan), the titular "White Guy on the Bus," in Bruce Graham's examination of race in its world premiere at Northlight Theatre. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

 
 
Posted2/6/2015 6:00 AM

"White Guy on the Bus" may not change anyone's opinion on race. But Bruce Graham's play, in its world premiere at Northlight Theatre, will most certainly ignite conversations.

The characters in this provocative, unflinchingly candid examination of race make some pretty shocking admissions, several of which elicited audible gasps from the mostly Caucasian opening-night audience. But it was the offhand comment from Ray, the titular white man, that stayed with me after the curtain came down on director BJ Jones' combustible, powerfully acted production.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Sitting beside an African-American woman on a city bus headed toward the penitentiary, Ray, played by the always authentic Francis Guinan, comments on the racial composition of the passengers.

"No white people of course," he says casually.

Barely audible, but loaded with class as well as racial overtones, the comment reveals a prejudice so deep-rooted Ray doesn't recognize it in himself. Even people who ought to know better aren't immune.

That's not to say "White Guy on the Bus" is a subtle play. Contrivances propel the plot. And Graham ("Stella & Lou," "The Outgoing Tide") populates the play with stereotypes: the callow do-gooder, the single mother determined to make a better life for her son, the tough-talking but dedicated teacher, the liberal academic, the enlightened millionaire. Yet it's bold in both its subject and its uncomfortably frank writing expressing what many of us would rather not admit: that some members of society still value less the lives of minorities, a point Graham makes shockingly clear in the play's most harrowing scene.

It's a far cry emotionally from where the action begins, in the well-manicured backyard of an affluent, middle-aged couple living in a Philadelphia suburb that recalls suburban Chicago's North Shore.

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An avuncular financial adviser, Guinan's Ray is a self-described "numbers man" stunned by the greed that motivates his younger colleagues.

It's as if "they all watched 'Wall Street' and want to be Michael Douglas," he says.

Ray contemplates selling his home, quitting his job and living a simpler life. His wife, Roz (Mary Beth Fisher, perfect as a provocateur with purpose), however, isn't quite ready to move to Walden Pond. A teacher who's spent her career working in the trenches in an inner-city high school, she's a politically incorrect pragmatist who's committed to her students, including a troubled, illiterate young man named Nazeer.

Joining them for drinks is Christopher (Jordan Brown), a longtime neighbor who's like the son they never had, and his liberal fiancé Molly (Amanda Drinkall). Christopher is a Ph.D. candidate hoping his examination of images of African-American men in popular culture lands him on a university's tenure track. Molly, a well-meaning but naive child of privilege, works as a guidance counselor at a tony private school in one of the city's best neighborhoods.

The topic of race dominates subsequent conversations between the couples, as it does those between Ray and struggling single mother Shatique (Patrese D. McClain in a gritty, passionate performance), a young African-American nursing student working as a health care aide. She meets Ray on the bus she takes Saturdays to the penitentiary where her brother is serving a life sentence for murder.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Revealing more would spoil the play. Suffice it to say that an inexplicable act of violence induces Ray to take public transportation.

In Jones' production, noteworthy for its acting, the scenes between the well-matched duo of Guinan and McClain are particularly engrossing. Both offer compelling, nuanced portraits of fundamentally decent people transformed by events beyond their control.

Graham reserves some of his most incendiary dialogue for Roz, and Fisher repays him with a fiery performance of a professional who perceives clearly her students' limitations, but challenges them anyway, like a good teacher should.

McClain embodies the hard-won stoicism required of a woman who every day confronts people who distrust and fear her because of her skin color. When Shatique, driven to her breaking point, cries "I hate white people," we understand why.

Last but not least, there's wonderfully expressive Guinan, as credible as an amiable suburban everyman as he is as an avenger. I believed every step of Ray's transformation up to and including his insistence that he will prevail because he's "a rich white guy."

And that may be the most disturbing revelation of all.

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