Wednesday, March 15, 2017

WHITE GUY ON THE BUS Soars at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Susan McKey, Jessica Bedford, Robert Cuccioli and Jonathan Silver in WHITE GUY ON THE BUS. Photo by Matt Urban/Mobius New Media Inc.
Bruce Graham’s White Guy on the Bus, currently enjoying its New York City premiere at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan, is an absolutely extraordinary “Rashomon” of a play – one that allows its audience to interpret it in whatever manner might be consistent with their own pre-existing notions regarding race, class and vengeance, while still encouraging them at least to consider alternative explanations for what actually transpires on stage.  Thus, “politically correct” progressives will see ample evidence of “white privilege” in the fact that Ray (Robert Cuccioli), a well-connected, wealthy, white investment banker literally “gets away with murder,” while disadvantaged African-Americans suffer disproportionately in prison.
Similarly, the plight of Shatique (Danielle Lenee), a black, single mother, will resonate with the “politically correct” among us: after all, isn’t she balancing a multitude of responsibilities, including studying to become a nurse, working to support herself, visiting her son who is temporarily in the care of his grandmother, remaining in touch with her all-but-abandoned brother while he is in prison, and simply struggling to survive in her crime and drug-ridden ghetto?  Under those circumstances, who can really blame her if, when she is forced to make a difficult ethical decision, she fails to make the right one?

L-R: Robert Cuccioli and Danielle LeneƩ in WHITE GUY ON THE BUS. Photo by Matt Urban/Mobius New Media Inc.
Of course it also will be pretty obvious to the progressive contingent that Molly (Jessica Bedford), a white, well-educated, self-proclaimed liberal, working as a guidance counselor at a white all-girls academy in Bryn Mawr, is really a hypocrite and racist at heart.  Consider: after proclaiming her undying love for the city because of its “buzz,” its energy, and its diversity (in contrast to the all-white suburbs), what does she do but up and move to the suburbs as soon as she is pregnant in order to assure a safer life and better schools for her unborn child.  And didn’t she reluctantly admit that if her car were to break down at one o’clock in the morning, she’d much prefer if it were to happen in Bryn Mawr than in North Philadelphia?  QED: Racist!

And as for her husband, Christopher (Jonathan Silver), an aspiring sociologist whose dissertation prospectus is entitled “Male African-American Images in Television Advertising,” what more really need be said?  As his thesis adviser put it in rejecting his proposal “What right does a white man have to speculate on a black man’s image?” and then, in answer to her own question, “White man has no right, white man has no right!”  And so Christopher, another presumed racist, bites the dust but, availing himself of his “white privilege,” lands on his feet when Ray offers him a job.  And ends up with a great house in the suburbs, to boot.

But now let’s take a look at all of this from another vantage point: that of a politically in-correct conservative-leaning libertarian.  Yes, Ray is the beneficiary of “white privilege” (admittedly he is white) but that scarcely means that he doesn’t deserve credit for his achievements in life.  His mother died when he was seven.  His father was a bus driver and an alcoholic.  His brother went to jail for burglary.  But despite all that, Ray not only survived, but flourished.  Surely he deserves credit, rather than condemnation, for that.

And as for Shatique: yes, she is a black, struggling single mother.  But she is a single mother because she got pregnant at sixteen, and not as the result of rape, a condition for which she certainly must assume at least some responsibility.  Clearly she too deserves credit for the tremendous effort she is making to improve her life but providing her with a free pass for any and all mistakes she may have made or may yet make on the basis of her perceived “victimhood” is completely unjustified.  Regardless of her “victimhood,” or Ray’s “white privilege.” for that matter, shouldn’t they both still be held responsible for their actions?

Which brings us to Molly, that exemplar of smug, self-satisfied, “politically correct” hypocrisy.  With nothing at stake, Molly champions the right of African-Americans to take offense at any criticism emanating from a white person – simply because it comes from a white person – whether or not the criticism is justified by the facts.  She denies that anyone other than a white person can be racist and expresses the “theory that the disenfranchised – in this case African-Americans – due to the effects of slavery and the aftermath – can’t be racist because they never held the power” even to the point of denying that when eighteen black kids attack three Asian kids, that is a “racist” act.  And then, with everything at stake, Molly does a complete about-face, proclaiming that “we need to move.  Any place as long as it’s out of the city.  The schools are just – unless you’re rich enough for private just…forget about it.  The public schools are – well, you know. It’s weird but knowing you’re having a baby just…changes your whole point of view.  About everything.  People, our neighborhood.  Traffic.  I worry about traffic now.  I never did before.  Everything looks so…different.  It all seems dangerous.”

And Christopher?  But what, if anything, was wrong with his dissertation prospectus, “Male African-American Images in Television Advertising,” in the first place?  Notwithstanding his thesis adviser’s contemptuous remark - “What right does a white man have to speculate on a black man’s image?” – the fact is that a white man has every right to speculate on a black man’s image just as a black man has every right to speculate of a white man’s image.  Moreover, Christopher wasn’t even speculating: he was compiling and analyzing voluminous data on his subject, much in the way that Charles Murray did research for his books The Bell Curve and Coming Apart.  But then again, we saw how the students at Middlebury treated Murray, didn’t we?

There is one other character in White Guy on the Bus whom I have not yet mentioned and for good reason, despite the fact that she – Roz (Susan McKey) – is really the most important character in the entire play.  My problem is that, in talking about Roz, I run the risk of spilling the beans about the entire play.  But I will try to avoid that risk while eschewing spoiler alerts.

Roz is Ray’s wife and a truly dedicated English teacher.  Unlike Molly, she teaches in a disadvantaged inner-city school that is 72% African-American, 12% Hispanic, 9% Asian, and 7% “other.”  Despite that,  she has had finalists in nationwide poetry competitions, including two winners, in eleven out of the last fifteen years.  She is attempting to teach an illiterate student, Nazir, how to read – on her own time.  And she is this year’s state finalist for the national Teacher of the Year Award.

There is another way that Roz is very unlike Molly: she doesn’t spout platitudes or necessarily conform to whatever might be deemed “politically correct” at the moment. Notwithstanding Spike Lee’s contention that only a white person can be racist, she is fully prepared to accuse the black principal of her school of racism in light of the principal’s contempt for the Asians, Hispanics and “others”  - indeed, everyone other than the African-Americans - in her school.

It is not that Roz considers Molly to be racist.  On the contrary.  After Roz forces Molly to admit reluctantly that if her car were to break down at one o’clock in the morning, she’d much prefer if it were to happen in Bryn Mawr than in North Philadelphia, Roz readily concedes that “Molly, I would swear in court that you are not and have never been a racist.  You answered that question based on common sense.  You were honest.  None of us want our car to break down in the bad neighborhoods and around here the bad neighborhoods are black.  This is a fact.  But I work with people – like my principal – who would call you a racist in a heartbeat.  You would be perceived to be a racist because they didn’t like your answer.  It’s the new McCarthyism – don’t like the way someone thinks, call ‘em a racist.  Someone calls you a racist, how do you defend yourself?  Guess what – you can’t.”

In effect, Roz is strictly pragmatic, simply attempting to do the very best for the kids in her charge (despite their referring to her as a “white bitch,” a sobriquet which she did not consider a “hate crime” but actually used in a class on adjectives).  She entertains no preconceived notions to muddy the waters.  As she describes her work with Nazir, he is in “Tenth grade, can’t read.  So I meet with him after school and try to – I don’t know – do something for him.  I keep copies of job applications – not Microsoft or anything.  Realistic – fast food places.  Wal-Mart.  And we work on – I mean if he can at least fill one out maybe he can…I don’t know.”

To which, predictably, Molly’s response is: “You’re aiming kind of…well, low, aren’t you?  With the applications.  I mean, it’s as if you’re saying…okay, you – Burger King.  You’re from this neighborhood so don’t expect anything better.”

And Roz’s reaction: He can’t read, Molly.  I can be idealistic or realistic – can’t do both.

And there you have it.  Roz is the down-to-earth real adult in the room and it is what happens to her and how it reverberates throughout the group – especially as it affects Ray and Shatique - that animates the play.  I’m reluctant to say any more lest I inadvertently let the cat out of the bag and disclose too much.

My bottom line?  I think this is a terrific play with fine performances across the board and I urge you to see it.  And from my perspective – as a right-leaning libertarian -  I think that Bruce Graham has done as good a job of demolishing progressive “politically correct” pretensions as David Mamet himself might have done.  But then my liberal friends most likely would disagree.