Review: White Guy on the Bus (Finborough Theatre)

Bruce Graham’s zip code drama is set in the US’s most divided metropolis

Carl Stone and Marina Bye in White Guy on the Bus
Carl Stone and Marina Bye in White Guy on the Bus
© Helen Maybanks

A white man and a black woman sit next to each other on a city bus. It’s an image that speaks of the social progress America’s made since Rosa Parks’ seated stand, but Bruce Graham’s zip code drama shows it up as a sham. Swinging from a wealthy white suburb to a destitute black inner-city neighbourhood, White Guy on the Bus suggests that segregation’s alive and well in America today, only grounded in economic inequality rather than ingrained racism.

Set in Philadelphia – the US’s most divided metropolis – White Guy on the Bus is a tale of one city: best of times, worst of times sat side by side. A rich accountant, Ray, strikes up a friendship of sorts with a young black woman Shatique on the route she rides to visit her brother in prison. He relates: Ray’s own brother served time, and he clawed his way up to self-made success. Only that’s not possible in this day and age – neither for the hardworking Shatique, nor for Ray’s surrogate son Christopher, an aspiring academic researching representations of race in advertising, whose financial insecurity festers into racial resentment.

Graham also tells a tale of two teachers: Ray’s realistic wife Roz, who faces daily abuse in a failing public school, repeatedly clashes with Christopher’s idealistic private school teacher partner, Molly. One sees the odds stacked against Philadelphia’s underprivileged kids without excusing their behaviour. The other insists that, with application, anyone can achieve the American dream.

While Graham keenly diagnoses the double standards at play in contemporary American society, his play is far better when calmly discursive than when fiercely dramatic. The dinner party debates over a broken, two-tier education system are sharply observed, as are the hackles over a culture of positive discrimination and diversity schemes. Graham tracks the way retrenching white privilege so easily tips into outright racial aggression.

In doing so, however, Graham goes too far – way too far – steering his civil conversational play into an unconvincing out-and-out revenge thriller. It’s not just that Ray’s descent into crazed master criminal is wildly overblown, despite a decent downcast performance from Donald Sage Mackay, but that the playwright seems to revel in a plot that plays racism for sport. Joanna McGibbon makes clear that Shatique’s straitened circumstances reduce her options, but Graham’s play goes as far as to strip her of all agency. She’s never allowed to stand up to her tormentor, nor even to flag the many flaws in his ludicrous and contrived masterplan.

Staged on a strip of astroturf that stands in for Ray’s lush green lawn, Jelena Budimir’s production never finds a firm footing and it clunks between scenes across the social divide. A spiky, unapologetic performance from Samantha Coughlan as the teacher who takes no prisoners lifts proceedings, but nothing can untangle the confused politics of a play that loses control. It risks throwing fuel on a fast-burning fire – too much white spirit, not enough care.

White Guy on The Bus runs at the Finborough Theatre until 21 April.