Plays dealing overtly with the thorny topic of "race in America" (usually narrowly defined as relations between WASP and African-American characters) have found considerable favour on British stages in recent years - ever since Bruce Norris scrawled all over Lorraine Hansberry's classic A Raisin in the Sun with his scabrous update Clybourne Park. Currently, Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm's Br'er Cotton is sold out at Theatre503, while Ned Bennett's Orange Tree-originated production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's An Octoroon is National Theatre-bound in June. Though different in content and approach, these works can be linked by a few factors, notably a boldly revisionist attitude to past narratives and a pessimistic perspective, one that, as Armond White argues in his fine review of Jordan Peele's film Get Out, often "paints a limited, doomed picture of race relations."
Receiving its European premiere at the Finborough, Bruce Graham's White Guy on the Bus is in many ways another example of this type of drama, charting the relationship between a white financial consultant, Ray, and a black single mother, Shatique, that shifts from apparent sympathy into more complicated territory. As the title suggests, the pair meet on a bus that Shatique takes every Saturday to visit her brother in a Philadelphia prison. Ray's reasons for being on the bus are more mysterious. But as the play shifts between his chats with Shatique and scenes in which he and his wife, Roz, entertain another couple, Christopher and Molly, at their home, Ray's intentions towards his fellow passenger become clear.
With its public transport setting, White Guy on the Bus seems to gesture further back than its immediate peers, specifically to Amiri Baraka's Dutchman (1964), which dramatised an explosive meeting between a middle-class black man and a white woman on an NYC subway car. Ray and Shatique's encounter is not a sexually charged one, however; rather, the pair's initial interactions (which include some of Graham's best writing) appear to reveal a certain gentle affinity and connection, as Shatique opens up about her life. The tension ratchets when we hear Ray telling Shatique something that we know - or believe - to be a lie but it's a shame that the play reveals its hand rather quickly after this, dissipating the intensity with a surprise reveal and developments that don't always fully convince. Generally avoiding the snark and satirical tendencies that have become associated with the most popular US-derived race-based dramas, Graham's storytelling is admirably lucid but sometimes excessively brisk, leading to a pacy evening but one that could be boosted by a little more depth and texture in elements of the writing.
Jelena Budimir's production remains highly engaging, though, placing the audience on both sides of the action, and negotiating the drama's location and temporal shifts with elegant economy. The production also benefits from strong performances from the cast. Donald Sage Mackay compellingly suggests a volatile temperament beneath the "numbers man" Ray's mild-mannered exterior. Samantha Coughlan brings a striking, vivid quality to her role as his spouse, a woman whose experiences as a teacher in a tough inner-city school have made her impatient with PC platitudes. Carl Stone and Marina Bye convince as the younger couple, while Joanna McGibbon is subtle and searing as Shatique moves from curiosity and warmth to confusion and distress in her attitude towards the stranger.
The high quality of the acting ensures that the on-the-nose debates about crime, racial representation and city versus suburb sound less contrived than they might. And as issues of vengeance rise to the fore, and latent prejudices are - inevitably - exposed, Graham's writing includes some subversive insights that help to counter the less convincing elements of the plotting. Overall, Budimir's production makes for an involving, gripping evening. However, as Bola Agbaje's very British Bitches demonstrated at this venue two years ago, it might be worthwhile for Artistic Directors to seek out more explorations of race relations beyond fashionable North American contexts.
Reviewed for The Reviews Hub. [**** stars].
Booking until 21 April.