In the one-man play/film hybrid “Ride Share,” now streaming via Writers Theatre, writer Reginald Edmund imagines Uber (or Lyft or Via) drivers as living in a kind of purgatory.
The gig economy offers a sense of controlling one’s own destiny, freeing oneself from the confines of the nine-to-five routine. And driving has a long history of representing a uniquely American type of independence: the alluring open road as a symbol of autonomy and possibility.
But shuttling others to their destinations, over and over and over again, can lose its liberating luster awfully fast, becoming instead its own stultifying routine. The experience accumulates the petty humiliations of subservience both to the individual passengers and to the disembodied machine-boss expressing commands through the algorithmic buzzing of a cell phone app. In just a few years, newly giant ride-share companies have descended in the public mind from the promise of enabling entrepreneurship to the epitome of 21st century exploitation.
To Edmund’s credit, we see many of these elements of social injustice, made even worse by the added dimension of persistent racial inequalities, translated to an individual arc in the tale of Marcus (Kamal Angelo Bolden), a charismatic newlywed with a “cush job” who is shocked to learn that landing a multimillion-dollar account doesn’t protect him from being laid off by the smug, Ivy-educated jerk married to the boss’ niece.
Marcus doesn’t dive into the ride-share gig with feelings of great hope, but with a clear determination to make a success of it for the sake of his adoring wife and the demands of their debt. He sheds his power suit for black sweats and obsesses over his ratings, which director Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway expressionistically visualizes with large, cut-out numbers raining down on Marcus’s head.
For a while, Marcus finds a degree of pleasure in his choice of music, or in the moments between fares, when he “steps on the gas,” a phrase that becomes increasingly meaningful in Edmund’s mix of episodic realism and crafty literariness. But soon Marcus feels trapped in his small white car. His early observations of passengers possess an attitude of ironic observation (oh those catty, would-be bridesmaids), but this bemusement morphs into annoyance (the greetings of “My man” or, worse, “My dude”), and then into simmering fury when his former boss — that smug jerk — rather predictably finds his way into the backseat.
The purgatorial quality of the situation reaches its peak as Marcus describes the endless waiting for a fare at O’Hare airport, his loneliness so intense that he begins to imagine a co-driver he calls his “dark rider.” His descriptions of this shapeshifting, devilish figure bring the history of costumed chauffeurship — coachmen, jitney drivers, “Driving Miss Daisy” — into this contemporary context. And the dark rider menacingly preys — Iago-like — on Marcus’ swelling insecurities.
Purgatorial — in both a positive and negative sense — also describes the strange sense of space in this highly produced presentation, filmed on a soundstage in Los Angeles. The piece looks great (credit director of photography Tannie Xing Tang), but it is very much caught in a netherworld between theater and film, at a point where it is no longer theatrical but not yet cinematic.
Bolden, now living in L.A. but well-known to Chicago audiences from memorable roles as the title character in Pulitzer finalist “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” delivers an outstanding turn as Marcus. He’s capable of filling any space with performative magnetism, and he finds all sorts of unexpected nuance and narrative shape in Edmund’s 80-minute monologue. But Hodge-Dalloway’s subdued filmic approach forces him to tone down the playing so much that the descriptive flourishes of this type of performance — an ability to create a whole world with words — lose poetic size. And the atmospheric momentum sometimes feels lessened rather than heightened by relatively constant, often rhythmically lulling, musical scoring.
All this could perhaps be more compelling if one could sense more — pardon the pun — drive. The relationship between Marcus and the audience is never established. And although this isn’t uncommon in one-person plays, “Ride Share” would benefit from giving Marcus’ narrative a direction and purpose, answering the questions: Why is he telling this story, and to whom?
Without it, this “Ride Share” comes off as thoughtful and attractive to look at, but removed, suspended outside time and space rather than urgently present.
Steven Oxman is a freelance writer.