Saturday night I was treated to a delightful show at The Generic Theater in Norfolk. It was a show I was unfamiliar with, entitled White Guy on the Bus. Written by Bruce Graham, it is an interesting look at racial tensions in modern society, with a surprise twist that frankly, I didn’t see coming. White Guy on the Bus was directed by Garney Johnson and produced by Jeannette Rainey. Lighting design was provided by Derrion L. Hawkins, who is also responsible for the sound effects.
This play was deceptive. It is easy to make assumptions about what to expect when going to see a production like this. It was billed as “an exploration of race and social class structure”. This is a hard pill for some to swallow, and although this is at the heart of the story, there is so much more to this production.
The plot centers around two central characters: Ray, a well-to-do older white gentleman, and Shatique is an impoverished medical worker who struggles to care for her son. She takes the bus to work every day. It is on that bus where we first see them meet, and they seem to form a friendship. The story jumps back and forth through time. We also get to see Ray’s family and their own personal struggles. The story is not at all afraid to dive head-first into the prejudice that everyone participates in, black and white alike, and the ridiculous justifications we use to justify why we behave the way we do. Just when you think you have the story figured out, though it takes a very unexpected and very dark turn. To go into any detail would spoil the story, so I will say very little about that going forward.
I have to say, this is the first time in a long time I was fully impressed with the performances of all the cast members. Perhaps the smaller cast makes the experience more intimate, and it really did work for this show. The role of Ray for the run of this show is split between two actors. Dave Hobbs and Joel King share the role to better work with Generic’s schedule. I did not have the pleasure of seeing Dave Hobbs perform. On Saturday Joel King took the reins, and I was very impressed with what I saw. He plays as a kind and understanding point-of-view character. He seems a generous soul that you would like to have the pleasure of knowing personally. This is until near the end of the first act, where he turns into the living incarnation of the grim reaper. His performance will make you shudder.
Lisa Randazzo plays Roz, Ray’s loving, and busy wife. She’s a career teacher at an inner-city black school district. She has become very jaded with her experience in the school system, and is not afraid to let her controversial opinions known. Garrett Barnes plays Ray’s son Christopher. Although he comes from privilege, he is struggling in his career. He does the best that he can, and he is loathe to accept help from his parents. His new wife, Molly, played by Noëlle Peterson, is very liberal and celebrates diversity. She tends to butt heads with Roz who sees her views as naive.
The stand-out for this production, without a doubt, goes to Felicia Fields as Shatique. She gives a completely believable performance that managed to establish a real presence without going over the top. Her emotions are genuine and superbly on display, making her the most identifiable character. You empathize with her dismay and outrage, and by the second act, she is the point-of-view character as opposed to Ray. This made it a unique experience for me in particular.
Director Garney Johnson did a fine job bringing his vision to life. One of the key elements was his set design. The set had all the various scenes in full view on the stage, allowing for a seamless transition with very little changing of set pieces. Ray was able to move from scene to scene. He could even be in more than one scene at a time as needed. The lighting and sound set-up by Derrion L. Hawkins worked well. The thunderstorm in the second act was impressive, as the lightning flashes matched up perfectly with the sound of thunder. While at this show, the audience was treated to a “Happy Accident” when one of the bulbs blew out before a scene in Christopher and Molly’s home. This resulted in the cast having hard shadows across their faces. This actually only enhanced the tone of the dark scene. As far as design goes, the only negative feedback I would give is, it would have been nice to hear the ambient sound effect of the engine running during the scenes on the bus. The silence took away from the illusion in my opinion.
Generic Theater has always impressed me, mostly for their willingness to try new things. There are many other theaters in the area that play things just a little too safe, and in the end miss out on a majority of lesser-known but entertaining and informative material. White Guy on the Bus is just one example of what theater could be in Hampton Roads. I suggest other theaters in the area take note of this production. I also suggest you, as an audience member get your tickets for the remaining performances.
White Guy on the Bus plays at the Generic Theater through January 27th. Get your tickets here.