Discomfiting Theater

By Retta Blaney

More than a decade ago, playwright Bruce Graham read a newspaper feature about a transit bus bound for New York City’s Rikers Island Correctional Center. Graham started thinking about the people who rode buses like that to the remote areas where prisons tend to be located. A self-described liberal, the 60-year-old South Philadelphia native was also pondering ideas about white privilege and “the slavery card,” topics he thinks other writers often avoid for fear of being politically incorrect. Out of his musings came White Guy on the Bus, which is staged by Off-Broadway’s 59E59 Theaters from March 7 to April 16.

“I usually start with stuff that gets me angry,” he said during a telephone interview from his home in South Philly. “That keeps me out of therapy.”

White Guy premiered two years ago in Chicago and has met with successful runs in Los Angeles, Oakland, and Trenton. Discussions of race have been emphasized in Episcopal parishes around the country in the last couple of years, following incidents of police shootings of unarmed black men and the murder of nine black church members in Charleston by a white supremacist.

“I’m sad and angry that it’s topical,” Graham said. “I think about things for years and then write the play in a matter of weeks. I’m a fast writer and slow thinker.”

White Guy is set in the present. Times and locations shift, as do the worlds of the five characters: Ray, a wealthy advertising man, and his wife, Roz, an inner-city public school teacher, both white and in their 50s; Christopher, a young man for whom Ray has been a father figure as well as mentor at work, and Molly, Christopher’s wife, both white; and Shatique, a 26-year-old struggling black single mother and nursing-school student who works in an assisted-living facility. Their lives intersect in startling ways.

When White Guy opened in Chicago two years ago, the actress playing Shatique helped Graham develop the dialect and conversation. His students at the inner-city campus of Drexel University in Philadelphia where he teaches playwriting, offered suggestions and rephrasing to make the play authentic.

When questioned about the appropriateness of giving the character such a black-sounding name, Graham had a question of his own: “What am I going to call her, Linda?” He said there was no black Linda in his classes at Drexel and that he used a former student’s name. Still, “no one in Philly would touch it.”

“The things I think about aren’t said in the theater. Theater has gotten so politically correct. It’s boring. I work in the two most politically correct environments: academia and the theater. I go out of my way to shake people up. I like to offend people.”

Graham doesn’t see White Guy as a play about race, but rather about revenge, which is one of the play’s plot twists.

Before the feedback he received from cast and students, Graham had worked to authenticate the play by riding the bus to Rikers. He was the only white person and one of only two men aboard. All the other riders were women and children of color. He went into the prison to feel what is was like to be a visitor placed in a circle and having guard dogs sniffing him. He wanted to experience the smells, sounds, and routines of prison life. “Everything that’s in there, I saw it.”

Graham grew up in a blue-color family in the segregated world of the 1960s in South Philadelphia, a city with a history of racial strife. It was one place where Jackie Robinson encountered a hateful reception. “I saw it everywhere growing up,” Graham said. “Diversity, when it happens organically, is great.”

Graham allows his characters to express ideas some people may find difficult. Ray admits that if he has three equally qualified job candidates — a white man, a black man, and a woman — he wants to hire the white man so he will not be charged with racism or sexism if he has to fire the person. Molly expresses her belief that people prefer to be with their own: “We’re more comfortable on a gut level.”

“I want to hold a mirror up there to make [audience members] uncomfortable,” Graham says. “I love to go to the theater and be surprised.”

What he most hopes, though, is that his audiences will be entertained. “I’m first and foremost a song and dance man,” he said. “I don’t want to be preaching. I want to tell a good story.”

Retta Blaney is an award-winning journalist and author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors (Sheed & Ward, 2003).

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