In the stretch of four short years, the Delaware Theatre Company has seen the kind of success that arts organizations across the country would die for. Indeed, any growth at all would be cause for celebration in the sector, but DTC’s numbers are genuine eye-catchers: Subscribers – up 70%, single ticket buyers – up a whopping 234%, and total take at the gate for the 2015-2016 season breached $1 million for the first time ever.
A buzzy stage product, of course, is at the heart of the DTC’s revival, including six new productions engineered – and so far successfully shepherded with a perfect record – to move on to big-time audiences on Broadway or Off-Broadway venues.
Consistently delivering plays that engage a broad enough audience to keep the lights on in a province like Wilmington is no easy feat. Go too edgy too often, and you risk losing older, perhaps more conservative audiences and even critical corporate sponsorships. Too much ‘Sound of Music’ and you lose cultural relevance. Recent DTC efforts have by and large navigated these straits with effect. But one irrefutable element in the theatre’s current momentum is the notion that we are being treated to a germinal sneak peek – and even kind of helping in the creation – of something bound for glory on grander stages.
DTC’s latest offering, “White Guy on the Bus,” makes no bones about its intention to make you feel uncomfortable about a topic that needs little help on its own. Written two years ago by Bruce Graham and directed by DTC’s Bud Martin, “White Guy” takes a crack at presenting a perspective on an issue that persists in gnawing at the American conscience in the most distressing, unsatisfying way. In the process, the play adroitly alights on the related, polarizing touchstones of economic justice, academic freedom, political correctness and even basic human insecurity.
Set in Philadelphia, the show opens with a quartet of well-educated and well-meaning white suburbanites trading informed reflections on race (and class and gender) over cocktails on a Main Line terrace. The breezy banter foretells a dark turn you know must be coming.
Soon a sinister plot twist connects the theoretical with the raw reality that frames society’s struggle to “solve” or maybe even improve the cycles of poverty and crime so intertwined with the dialogue around race.
Productions that play in this space can easily fall into a moralizing, self-righteous trap of forgetting the form is meant not to preach but to challenge and, even better, entertain.
“White Guy” carries off this mission, with strong performances and no high horse. But nor does it gallop off in a cloud of sunshine and hope. We are a tribal species but ultimately, all members of the same – human – race, bound together by a birthright of equality only Americans can claim. This play and so many recent events leave us asking if those things can ever be enough.
***Special Message from TSD: For the first time in more than twenty years, the Delaware Theatre Company is conducting a capital campaign. If you are so inclined to support them, please click here.
Photos by Matt Urban, Mobius New Media