By Cindy Stovall
I’ll admit that I didn’t have a lot of pre-conceived notions about Skeleton Crew before attending the Sunday matinee at American Stage this past opening weekend. I knew it was about Detroit’s auto industry during the economic downturn in and around 2008. I heard murmurings about playwright Dominique Morisseau’s parallels to August Wilson based on her trilogy, the “Detroit Project” (Skeleton Crew being the third installment), vs. Wilson’s “Century Cycle”, rooted in Pittsburgh.
Both collections tell fictional tales but with strongly developed characters reacting to circumstances that are historically accurate to a particular period or event. The stories reflect cultural and socio-economic challenges with humor and gut-wrenching poignancy.
High praise indeed, but was the comparison justified? Ultimately, these are questions we can only answer for ourselves, but I was, at a minimum, curious about what my own assessment would be.
We meet 4 employees of a Detroit auto plant struggling with their individual circumstances while dealing with their common plight of potential unemployment.
( cast members: Enoch Armando King, Dee Selmore, Camille Upshaw and Rasell Holt)
Faye is a 50ish veteran worker of 29 years, on her own, and one year away from full retirement benefits. She is the union rep, carefully balancing her long term friendship with supervisor, Reggie (son of her late lover) against protecting the rights of her co-worker/friends, among them, young Dez and Shanita.
Reggie has the similar struggle of protecting the future of his family while trying to do the same, under impossible circumstances, for his employees – all while trying to keep order and discipline over his increasingly disgruntled crew.
Dez is the angry young man, a bit of a player, full of intelligence and potential, but met with obstacles at each turn that threaten his ambition, self-image and future plans. He tries to play by the rules and wrestles with his conscience vs. the reality of his circumstances.
Shanita, young, single and pregnant, is the object of Dez’s clumsy affections. She loves her work and is a dedicated employee who hears “music” on the line. She protects herself from Dez’s advances (and her own feelings), with sharp and witty rebuffs as she tries to plan a secure future for her unborn baby amidst great uncertainty.
Morisseau’s dialogue paints them on the canvas of our imaginations with great depth, humor and clarity. But it also allows us to reach across cultural barriers to see and understand things we may not have had to deal with. Ultimately, we see humanness.
The premise is definitely compelling. So, how does American Stage meet the challenge of taking Morisseau’s words and creating a production that showcases the full potential of the material and the intent of the playwright?
Let’s start with the director, L. Peter Callender. The current Artistic director of San Francisco’s African-American Shakespeare Company, Callender has become a frequent presence at American Stage in the past few years. He directed two of the plays in August Wilson’s “Century Cycle” ( Joe Turner’s Come and Gone & Jitney), to great acclaim, multiple awards and 2 “Best Director” nods. Last season, Callender not only directed another of Morisseau’s plays, Pipeline, but he also won a “Best Actor” nod for his role as “Pops” in Between Riverside and Crazy. There was little doubt that he would infuse every bit of his considerable magic into guiding the performances and telling the story. I was seated near him in the audience, and I can tell you that he felt, absorbed and reacted to every line – including with the tears we collectively shed. He is all in.
Set design was perfectly, shabbily, industrial and reminiscent of the break room in any large factory – or what you might imagine if you’d never been in one. The strong, drab realism was accomplishment enough, but then there are spectacular elements of light, choreography, imagery and sound rhythms splashed throughout to punctuate scene changes and further depict the workings of the stamping (auto) plant beyond our view.
That leaves us with the cast. Obviously, the words are only as explosive as the actors that deliver them. Well, BOOM! Even as I write several days later, I remain moved by the performances I witnessed on the Raymond James Stage.
Florida native Dee Selmore and journeyman performer Enoch Armando King reunite here in Skeleton Crew after working together in 2018’s AS production of A Raisin in the Sun. That history is reflected in their powerful rapport on stage. As the wiser, more “senior” characters, you feel every bit of their angst, conflict, fear, strength, and ultimately, their sacrifices and love. One of King’s dialogues was so compelling, it drew applause in the middle of a scene! I’d watch these two in anything they were in.
Rasell Holt and Camille Upshaw make their American Stage debuts as the street-wise young love interests, full of hope, yet weary of everything and everyone that has molded their experience. The discourse between them is sharp, crisp, often hilarious and ultimately poignant. I found myself rooting hard for them. There is little doubt, that if we’re very lucky, we’ll be seeing a lot more of them.
So I leave it to you to answer the original question for yourself. Is Dominique Morrisseau’s work comparable to August Wilson’s? With direction and a cast like the one I saw perform Skeleton Crew, I say……. Hell yes!
Approx. 2 1/2 hrs with one intermission Runs through February 23rd Americanstage.org (727) 823-PLAY (7529)