Upbeat Back of the Bus boldly explores racial issues

Russ Tarby, Staff Writer 05/23/08More articles
Stifling stereotypes:

Whether it’s a painting, a poem or a stage play, any work of art can be judged by a single criterion: does it make you think about everyday things in a new way?

“From the Back of the Bus,” the Media Unit’s national award-winning original play dealing with teenagers and race, does just that as it now plays at the Syracuse Stage Black Box Theater. The 50-minute one-act boldly examines the racial stereotypes and social apathy that dominate daily life in America.

Rights squandered
Soon after the cast of four has made its entrance, the young black kid named Malik (played by Evan Rohadfox) makes two poignant points that say it all:
“You know, our ancestors died for the right to vote, and now we don’t vote. And our ancestors died so we wouldn’t have to sit at the back of the bus, and now we sit at the back of the bus.”

In those deftly delivered lines, “Bus” succinctly summarizes two of modern America’s biggest problems: voter indifference and the teenage tendency to reject individual responsibility in favor of “back of the bus” group antics.
Group dynamics is one of this play’s underlying themes. It asks how does one group view another, and how does an individual person fit in.

The quartet is half black and half white and all image-conscious.

Malik sports a “Hoops Across America” T-shirt. White girl Spike (played by Deborah Orr) wears goth makeup and a Marilyn Manson T. Gerald (played by Joseph Corallo), a self-proclaimed wigger, drapes himself in baggy sweats, a skull-cap and a “Word” necklace. Black urban professional Aquila (played by Tamara Reese) wears preppie duds, khaki slacks and yellow blouse.

Beating recalled
The play opens with a somewhat lengthy voice-over by sound designer Sarah Orr playing the part of the bus driver describing the little-known, pre-Rosa Parks incident in which teenager Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat at the front of a Birmingham, Ala. bus and ended up severely beaten by police.

Once the four characters begin to interact, however, humor helps dull the sting of the play’s difficult lessons while music and dance demonstrate that group activities invariably bring out the best that individuals have to offer.

Whether they’re dancing or delivering lines, all four of these performers rise to the occasion, but the script blesses Rohadfox with some especially juicy bits. His brief imitations of President George H. W. Bush and Bill Cosby are hilarious. And Corallo’s Gerald, well, he almost got booked on the “Oprah” show.

Such allusions pique audience interest, but what really counts are the play’s animated examinations of what it means to be white, black, a gang member, a victim of abuse or a beneficiary of Affirmative Action. While there are no easy answers to the questions posed by “From the back of the Bus,” enjoying this upbeat show is easy as pie. Dig in!

The Media Unit continues its run of “From the Back of the Bus” at the Syracuse Stage Black Box Theater, at various times through May 25. Tickets are free, but reservations are required. Call 478-8648 for dates and times.

Rating: 2.2/5 (15 votes cast)

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