Another play about race?
Dezart Performs is bringing us White Guy on the Bus at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club. Despite walking into a full house of patrons, I was dreading this; being lectured is not my idea of entertainment, thank you.
Michael Shaw, the artistic director of Dezart and the director of the play, was gracious when I cornered him in the lobby before the performance to ask: Why?
“It’s written by Bruce Graham,” he explained, “and we produced another of his plays (in 2016), The Outgoing Tide. I follow him, and I have to see everything he writes. His script for this play is brilliant—brilliant. The theme is uncomfortable, because we have to address it. It’s the only way we’ll grow. We’re in a world where this is a topic of major importance.”
I can’t argue with that. But it was written in 2014, which places it during Obama’s presidency, not now … something to remember. The playwright hails from Philadelphia, Shaw explained, where the play is set, though he now lives in Chicago. (“Great,” I thought glumly, as I fumbled my way to my seat, wishing the play were safely about some innocent but witty cocktail party here in Palm Springs.)
Speaking of “set,” Thomas Valach’s beautiful and minimalist open stage doesn’t remotely resemble a bus (which I had gloomily expected). It sports only two sofas, six chairs and one leafy plant, in three loose groupings. The gorgeous lighting, designed by Matthew Garrett, plays on the stark angled flats that back the stage. But wait until you see what happens to those flats when the play begins!
And wait until you see this play.
We are swept up in the story of five people, one of whom is black. The lead character, Ray, marvelously played by David Youse, never leaves the stage. He’s wealthy, “a numbers man,” but we first discover him trying to convince his wife to sell everything and run off to the South Seas à la Gauguin. His spouse, Roz, played by Alexana Thomas, is a hard-voiced but soft-hearted teacher who is committed to helping kids in the ghetto better their lives, even giving special reading classes on her own time. She has no interest in running off—especially after being nominated for the prestigious Teacher of the Year award.
Their sort-of son, Christopher, played by Sean Timothy Brown, is preparing his post-graduate dissertation on his analysis of the portrayals by black actors in TV commercials. Despite being accused of pandering, he investigates the now-stereotypical roles and the reasons for them. His pretty redheaded girlfriend, Molly, is sweetly played by Bianca Stoker, and they, with Roz and Ray, share lively white-people debates on such ghastly topics as, “Who is really a racist?” with everyone delivering their point of view with varying degrees of passion.
One of the most fascinating and unusual aspects of Shaw’s stage direction here is an almost complete absence of movement. The characters enter, and then stand, or sit … and talk. Nobody moves around. Nobody goes off to get a drink or a tissue or a sweater—the better to focus on the words. So when Ray quick-steps his way stage-left to seats “on the bus” to change the scene, and we pick up part way through a conversation, it seems completely natural, even if those few strides take him from his own living room onto a bus.
Now on the bus, we meet single black mom Shatique, exquisitely played by Desirée Clarke. From her first words, spoken—while busily clipping coupons—to her new acquaintance Ray, we totally believe everything this actress says and does. Every one of her actions and reactions seem to be completely spontaneous and unrehearsed. It is an extraordinary experience to see this kind of believing in an actor, because her natural and comfortable-in-her-own-skin manner makes us feel that we actually know this person. It’s beyond Method acting. Her scenes with the equally talented David Youse are exceptional theater—together, they shine.
The lifestyle she reveals through their conversation, without a trace of self-pity, is astonishing. “Cops don’t come unless there are shots fired,” she simply informs Ray, in his business suit, about her life in the ‘hood, when he asks why she doesn’t complain about the next-door meth lab—and her struggles to improve her grammar will touch your heart. Kudos to costume designer Frank Cazares for dressing the whole cast, but especially for Shatique’s outfits, which speak volumes.
But something’s … weird. A nagging question in the backs of our minds finally struggles to the fore: What is this rich white guy doing on the bus, especially this bus, and especially since he rides it to the end of the line, and then—when everyone, including Shatique, disembarks—he rides it back again, alone?
That’s the magic of this play: The story will drag you through a chasm of emotions and surprise you again and again before you can recover. Nothing in you can guess what’s coming. A twisting plotline like this is a great rarity.
Shaw was right: The script is brilliant—brilliant. It says things you may have never heard spoken out loud. It delves into a new-millennium threat to our privacy, where you can find out anything about anyone. It tests the buying power of money. It looks at the world of incarceration, and ponders how much of what we think we know came from Hollywood movies about prisons. It shines a light on how different people can pay differently for a similar crime. It reflects on revenge. It says things we thought people were forbidden to say.
It sounds heavy, but don’t be afraid of going to this play like I was. You will be rewarded with an awesome theatrical experience, an unforgettable story, and terrific acting. It will make you think about everything from people’s inherent rights in this country, to how people perceive events differently, to who gets to be sensitive about what.
I can’t reveal more without giving too much away … so go see White Guy on the Bus—and enjoy the ride.
Dezart Performs’ production of White Guy on the Bus is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 10, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $30 to $35. For more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.