Bruce Graham’s White Guy On The Bus is largely scored by what sounds like an engine, idling. It has this feeling the whole way through: tense, always ready to shift into higher gear at a moment’s notice, and it frequently does. The Finborough is far from either the safe, affluent, white suburbs of Philadelphia or the poor, majority black ‘Philadelphia Badlands’, but Graham’s play still applies the heat until it’s sweltering, even in Earl’s Court.
Directed by Jelena Budimir in its European premiere, Graham’s script doesn’t pull its punches. Though I’m a firm believer that work on racism can and should be done by anyone, I still get that feeling when I see a play on race has been written by a white person. Non-white people know this feeling. Your guard goes up. And with a majority white cast?
Still, it works. It’s not that I think that being white necessarily gives you an insight into the way white privilege works that people like me are lacking, but Graham here is personal and scathing. His scope is wide: educational efforts in ‘rough’ areas, real seething resentment between races, and the insidious ethnic casting in advertisements which calls for non-threatening, “well-spoken” depictions of black men at the head of companies and ambiguously raced “multi-ethnic” women. The handful of people of colour in the audience were easily outnumbered by the several older, largely white and entirely male critics, but whoever White Guy On The Bus plays to, it will bite.
Ray (Donald Sage Mackay) is a financier, married to Roz, a teacher who works in a public school and sees, to put it delicately, bad shit. Samantha Coughlan plays Roz wonderfully with clear expressions and absolute conviction. She’s a realistic and familiar character, a mess of politics as so many of us are. She resents Molly’s (Marina Bye) patronising and ineffectually liberal attitude towards black people and the kids she works with, but expresses her belief in an era of a new McCarthyism consisting of everyone racing to hurl accusations of racism at each other. She waves off Molly’s quoting of the much-disputed definition of racism as power in combination with prejudice. From the thick of it, where she stands, it all looks the same to her.
All of these characters and Roz and Ray’s quasi-son, Christopher (Carl Stone) are white. Joanna McGibbon plays Shatique, the only black character, whose world bears no resemblance to that of these white liberals. She and Ray meet on the bus which goes to the prison, and something like friendship is struck up between them. Luckily, McGibbon isn’t limited to the role of simple contrast or dose of reality, and her character is as well-drawn, angry and realistic as the rest. Graham’s strength is his avoidance of passing too heavy-handed a judgement on the characters and the attitudes they hold; he doesn’t need to. White Guy On The Bus is nasty from the outset, before the venom in these people has to bubble over, because that’s how racism works.
Designer Sarah Jane Booth’s choice of a plush green carpet is somehow effectively unnerving, while eclectic lighting (Zak Macro) from fluorescent strips to lampshades helps to indicate location, though the overlapping of scenes means it’s never a genuine problem. I don’t personally have the kind of barbed conversations that are in White Guy On The Bus anymore, but many will recognise the layers of white self-consciousness and deep-running bigotry here. Graham puts on trial those who endlessly extol the virtues of ‘diversity’ yet have no stake in changing things; he’s concerned with complicity, how we cover over exploitation with money and make excuses for our discomfort.
Budimir’s direction is largely efficient and smooth, letting the play show you the ugliness we all know is there. It’s a vindication of my feeling that race isn’t and shouldn’t be a subject off-bounds to anyone, and another notch on the Finborough’s well-worn belt.
White Guy On The Bus is on at Finborough Theatre until Saturday April 21st. Book tickets here.