Sometimes, one of the best things about certain shows is the title. In this case, with None Too Fragile Theater’s production of Bruce Graham’s White Guy on a Bus, the title has the desired effect of staking out two sides of the conflict to come.
Driving around town, we’ve all seen the people who are waiting for the bus, and they are predominantly African-American. These are people with low wage jobs that can’t afford personal transportation. So when the wealthy Caucasian financial advisor Ray starts riding the bus to the local prison late at night on the weekends, and repeatedly chats up an African-American woman who is a trainee nurse at the facility, you begin to wonder what he’s up to.
These are the thoughts that go through Shatique’s mind, as a black woman who has to ride the bus out of necessity. And their shared rides lead to the surprising climax of a play that, most of the time, doesn’t earn its own earnestness about racial tensions, identity and privilege. The problems here are due both to the honest but overly obvious script and some decidedly vague performances.
Before Ray and Shatique meet, we are introduced to Ray’s wife Roz, who is a teacher at an inner city school and who wears her cynicism like a badge of honor (recounting the numbers of times she’s been called “white bitch” by her charges). But hidden under her smartass comments about her minority students beats a heart that really cares.
However, this doesn’t come forth when Roz is debating racial issues with her daughter Molly, who’s a teacher at a cushy private school. Nor with Molly’s fiancé Christopher, who, it just so happens, is an academic fellow working on a study of African-American and Asian males in advertising.
For his part, Ray is a guy who says he wants to sell his house—no, he wants to sell everything—and move to an island somewhere. But those dreams of sitting on a beach end when a tragic event changes his intentions, and not in a good way.
The issues the playwright raises are powerful ones, especially in today’s world, and Graham is to be commended for being totally honest about the racial divide that exists in America. But his incessant hammering on these issues, while neglecting a more believable character-driven approach, eventually sabotages his own work.
In some cases, the performances don’t help this situation. As Ray, Joseph Bonamico remains stuck in a casual, hands-in-pants-pockets style of acting that never clarifies what’s going on in Ray’s mind. As a result, the later actions of this troubled man fail to ring true. As his wife Roz, Dede Klein has some sharp exchanges with other family members. But the scenes between Ray and Roz, even when they’re showing affection for each other, feel generic and stiff.
As for the smaller roles, they also don’t ignite much interest. Tony Zanoni’s off-handed reading of Christopher doesn’t come across as an earnest young man pursuing his doctoral dissertation. And the excellent actor Rachel Lee Kolis appears hemmed in by Molly’s fairly unbelievable innocence about how the world works for people of different races.
Emerging most unscathed in this production is India Nicole Burton, who manages to fashion a character in Shatique that feels genuine and worthy of exploration.
With its non-realistic furniture (gray boxes, mostly) and its attempt at realistic dialog, this NTF show is a mixed bag that director Sean Derry never quite gets a grip on. One hopes that NTF finds a way to give Derry (who also designed and helped build the set and is involved in most management aspects of the theater) a break. If he can offload some of his many duties, including having a guest director more frequently, it will help this talented man recharge his impressive creative battery.
White Guy on the Bus
Through May 26 at None Too Fragile Theater, 1835 Merriman Rd., Akron (enter through Pub Bricco), 330-962-5547, nonetoofragile.com.