With racism once again being given permission to rear its hideous head in today’s post-Obama America, the time could not be riper for Bruce Graham’s riveting, conversation-provoking White Guy On The Bus to make its Los Angeles debut at The Road On Magnolia.
Issues of race might not seem the usual topic of cocktail chitchat among upper-middle-class white professionals, but 50ish investment banker Ray, his wife Roz, and their young friends Christopher Molly have reasons to find the topic of interest.
Ray (Kevin McCorkle) could well end up sued for discrimination should an employee of color not prove up to snuff, his inner-city high school teacher wife Roz (Amy Stoch) makes it a point to mentor promising black students, and grown-up boy-next-door Christopher (Crash Buist) is writing his Ph.D. dissertation on the role of African-American males in TV advertising.
In fact, only Christopher’s wife Molly (Teagan Rose) seems mostly outside the racial equation, her job at a cushy Bryn Marr private school placing her in contact with students more likely to cut themselves than each other.
As Roz struggles to make a difference in the lives of students like the illiterate Nazeer, Christopher wonders if it’s not hypocritical that TV ad execs routinely insist that African-American characters be shown only in positions of authority, preferably with white subordinates.
Ray, meanwhile, has been spending his Sundays aboard Philadelphia public transportation chatting up African-American nursing student Shatique (Kacie Rogers), who over a series of Sunday bus rides reveals to Ray both her destination (the prison where her murderer brother is serving a life sentence without parole) and her dream of a better life for herself and the nine-year-old son she sees just once a week at Grandma’s house.
Playwright Graham maintains audience interest by keeping conversation edgy and provocative while taking his own good time in revealing just why Ray, who could surely be spending his Sundays in luxury-car comfort, is slumming it on the bus.
What Graham has up his sleeve is a doozy of a shocker sure to provoke plenty of intermission conversation, and one that takes White Guy On The Bus’s second act into pulse-pounding suspense thriller territory.
Like Rogue Machine’s recent Honky and Dutch Masters, the latest from the Road finds fresh new ways to get folks thinking in non-black-and-white terms about black-and-white issues that ought to have been resolved decades ago but remain as divisive and corrosive as they were during the Civil Rights Movement ‘50s and ‘60s.
Under Stewart J. Zully’s electric direction, performances on The Road On Magnolia’s stage could not be finer, beginning with McCorkle, absolutely riveting in a role whose complexities are best left unsaid, but which allow the stage-and-screen vet to dazzle and demolish.
Rogers is equally stunning as a young woman intent on bettering herself for both her own and her son’s future, but finds herself having to make life-or-death decisions she could never before have imagined.
Buist (of the Road’s Birder) and Rose (of Echo Theatre Company’s Dry Land) once again prove themselves two of L.A.’s most talented and charisma-blessed young actors, and Stoch is terrific too as a woman navigating the blackboard jungle of today’s public schools.
Scenic designer Sarah B Brown’s ingenious set allows for lickety-split scene changes, aided and abetted by Yee Eun Nam’s gorgeous mood-and-location-establishing projections and Derrick McDaniel’s striking lighting, with David B. Marling’s dramatic sound design (musically spiced by beatbox John “Faahz” Merchant) and Michèle Young’s character-defining costumes completing all all-around Grade-A production design.
White Guy On The Bus is produced by Carlyle King and Michelle Gillette. Emma Pauly is assistant director. Buist scores bonus points as fight coordinator. Maurie Gonzalez is stage manager.
Jennice Butler, Janet Chamberlain, Cris D’Annunaio, Mark Elias, and Lina Green are understudies.
Even more so than last year’s fascinating but flawed Broken Fences, the Road Theatre Company’s White Man On The Bus finds strikingly original ways to tackle issues of race in contemporary America. You won’t stop thinking about it for days after it final fade to black.
The Road On Magnolia, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.
January 27, 2017
Photos: Michèle Young