Northlight Theatre’s “White Guy on the Bus” is a world premiere that at first glance sounds like a one-note racism discussion, but presents instead a series of surprising twists and accurate performances that make the production worth the ticket price.
Every American who has lived through this past year and watches a modicum of news is prepared to see this show, be entertained, and be interested in the discussion. At the surface, “White Guy” (a telling title) concerns Black versus White socio-political interactions, with characters defining racism while mining their own opinions, which are representative of opinions throughout much of the country.
Ray, a wealthy older White man played ably and thoughtfully by Francis Guinan, is married to a say-it-like-it-is public school teacher named Roz, given form by no other than Mary Beth Fisher. In Guinan’s Ray, the audience finds both familiar and repressed opinions, which unlocks the question of race for discussion. Side by side with the “never dull” Roz/Fisher, they make an engaging lead couple to empathize with- or be surprised by.
Ray and Roz struggle the “normal” struggles of a wealthy white couple nearing retirement (which Roz claims will not happen to her until “they carry her out”) as well as the struggles inherent in their work: the world of high finance and that of troubled inner-city school students. A younger couple, with whom Ray and Roz regularly talk ethics and race politics over wine, is played by Amanda Drinkall and Jordan Brown, who, though aptly cast, provide slightly greener and less inspired performances.
Every loose end is tied up with Shatique, a Black nursing student on the bus sincerely and skillfully given voice by Patrese McClain. Ray and Shatique’s mysterious relationship develops slowly over the course of act one, and is given quite a turn at curtain.
The cast is, by and large, spot-on in its interpretation. Some slower or more repetitive bits are likely attributed to the directing, which presents the characters’ material as overly theatrical and not entirely believable outside of the theatre space. Whether theatricality is the right cup of tea for this material is up for grabs.
Despite this reservation, “White Guy’s” aesthetic comes together very neatly, wrapping in JR Lederle’s tasteful lighting (with some powerful shifts in style during the performance) and John Culbert’s beautifully simple set, consisting of a lawn, windows, and props from the fly space. The buildup of fly props became a bit distracting, but never ruined the elegance of the aesthetic design, which was capped by the delicate props work of Sarah Burnham.
Act one of “White Guy on the Bus” is a skillful, thought-provoking glance at race politics between the upper and lower-middle classes in America, and gives voice to common, but never boring, opinions audience members can sympathize with. Fisher’s character, in particular, says many things unspoken by the other characters (and lurking in audience members’ minds), and gives Fisher many entertaining and expertly handled moments on stage. Act two brings the discussion back down with a bit too much yelling, and ties the play up in a loose bow.
As director BJ Jones says in his Artistic Director’s statement, there may be no better time and place for this play than America, right now. There is more to “White Guy” than the immediate gut-clenching reaction of “not another race play.” At its essence, this play is both a plot-focused ride and a truthful conversation on racism in America; a two-fold feat that is worthy of commendation for playwright Bruce Graham and the team on “White Guy.”
“White Guy on the Bus” runs now through Feb. 28th, with performances Tuesday through Sunday, at Northlight, 9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie. Tickets start at $25, with deals for students. Get tickets at Northlight.org, or 847-673-6300.