Tall Tales: "White Guy On The Bus," A Review

Denver’s Curious Theatre Company’s now featuring “White Guy on the Bus (through June 24). Tickets here. Below is award-winning writer (and our Denver critic) Mark Stevens’ take on the production.

Rachel Bouchard (Molly), Andy Woldschmidt (Christopher), Sam Gregory (Ray) and Dee Covington (Roz) in "White Guy on the Bus."

Rachel Bouchard (Molly), Andy Woldschmidt (Christopher), Sam Gregory (Ray) and Dee Covington (Roz) in “White Guy on the Bus.”

In “White Guy on the Bus,” the sharpest line about race is a zinger about the financial meltdown and related scams.

“If Bernie Madoff had been dragged out into Central Park and hung from his neck until he was dead, and they’d shown it on CNN, then we wouldn’t need the SEC.”

Of course Madoff is currently serving a century and a half of prison time, but the point, delivered by “white guy” Ray, is spot on.

White privilege, when it comes down to it, carries the day.

White privilege rules.

White privilege runs the show.

Ray, when we first meet him, seems like the least likely candidate for taking advantage of either his birthright or economic status. He’s a gentle, believable soul. He dreams of disappearing on an island in the South Pacific. Paul Gauguin, he tells his wife, was a stockbroker before becoming a painter so there’s precedent for a complete transformation and for walking away from their suburban trappings and all that goes with it, including the pressures of his executive position. Ray is a “numbers guy,” some sort of investment adviser, but not thrilled with that tag on his reputation. It’s not how he wants to be known.

Sam Gregory (Ray) rides the bus with Jada Dixon (Shatique).

Sam Gregory (Ray) rides the bus with Jada Dixon (Shatique).

But Ray’s wife, Roz, is content with the status quo. She wants to work until they carry her out. She’s an inner city teacher, working with poor kids and helping them learn to read. She is familiar with the sting of slurs, but she makes it clear—someone has to be around to teach these kids, even high school, how to read.

Roz’ veteran status as an urban teacher gives her ample credibility when questions of race bubble into the conversation. The questions are rolled out by Christopher, the couple’s sort-of surrogate son, and his girlfriend, Molly. Christopher is working on a graduate thesis about how advertising attempts to mislead the public about the true nature of who is in charge. Molly jumps into the fray, urging the need for role models and harmless effort to boost aspirations for the underclasses. Soon, Roz needles Molly over her claim that she can’t possibly be a racist.

During the slow-build first act, we might think this is well-trod turf. But our interest is piqued several times throughout the first act as Ray exits scenes and chats on a bus with a black woman, Shatique, who is furiously clipping coupons stuffed inside a fat textbook. These transitions are really cool—characters continuing to talk on one side of the stage while Ray leaves to take his spot on the bus. There’s a stream-of-consciousness flow to these scene changes, time and space being toyed with. We get glimpses of Ray’s relationship with Shatique, but not enough to piece it all together. It’s a bus to where? Why the routine? How does Ray know her? Know how to find her?

And, then, well, the roof comes off.

It’s one of those wonderful wow moments where we zoom back through all that has come before and realize we’ve been deftly manipulated by a masterful bit of storytelling. Playwright Bruce Graham lays out the familiar talk of race, which often makes us squirm, before turning the tables. Big time. We recalibrate our assumptions, just as the characters on stage are rapidly reconfiguring their world view.

You’ll get no spoilers from me, but suffice it to say, that “White Guy on the Bus” transforms genteel Ray in a major way and suddenly Ray is the mouthpiece for white privilege, Gauguin dreams kaput.

‘White Guy on the Bus” asks the most of Ray. I might be mistaken, but I believe Sam Gregory spends the entire show on stage, drifting back and forth from the bus to the various configurations of talks with Roz, Christopher, and Molly. Gregory delivers a stellar performance, from chill and casually refined to ferocious and relentlessly ruthless. It’s a memorable turn and Gregory’s polish (45 productions at Denver Center for the Performing Arts) is apparent.

Around Gregory is an equally strong crew. Curious stalwart (founding member) Dee Covington is terrific as Roz, particularly as she takes on Molly’s naïve beliefs about herself. Rachel Brouchard (Molly) and Andy Woldschmidt (Christopher) round out the ensemble and their work is seamless. Jada Dixon (Shatique) represents the entire hopes and dreams of an entire race and class (no pressure there) and brings the fire when the ugly choices come her way.

Sharply directed by Chip Walton (again, those nifty overlapping scenes) and set on another one of those clever multi-purpose sets, all simple representation and smacking of urban hardness, “The Guy on the Bus” will send you home talking and debating long into the night.

The Curious Theatre Company’s production of “White Guy on the Bus” is only the third in the country, a week behind one in Trenton, New Jersey. There are more than a few lines that burn straight to the core, incendiary as they come. It’s a gripping piece of theater, a challenging finale to a terrific season at Curious.

Mark Stevens, courtesy Cyrus McCrimmon

Mark Stevens, courtesy Cyrus McCrimmon

Editor’s note: Telluride Inside… and Out’s regular column, Tall Tales, is so named because contributor Mark Stevens is one long drink of water. He is also long on talent. Mark was raised in Massachusetts. He’s been a Coloradoan since 1980. He’s worked as a print reporter, national news television producer, and school district communicator. Mark is the author of the Allison Coil Mystery Series—Antler Dust (2007), Buried by the Roan (2011), Trapline (2014) and Lake of Fire (due out in September, 2015). The series is set in the Flat Tops Wilderness in Western Colorado. Trapline won the 2015 Colorado Book Award for best mystery and the 2015 Colorado Author League award for best genre fiction. Mark Stevens’ new Alison Coil mystery, Lake of Fire, was published this year.

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Mark Stevens

Mark Stevens

Mark Stevens was raised in Massachusetts. He’s been a Coloradoan since 1980. He’s a print reporter, national news television producer and school district communicator. He’s now working in the new economy and listed under “s” for self-employed. Stevens has published two Colorado-based mysteries, Antler Dust (2007) and Buried by the Roan (2011). The third book in the Allison Coil Mystery Series is under production and tentatively slated for release in 2013.

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