BWW Review: TAMPA BAY PREMIERE PROVES TO BE A HARD HITTING EXPOSE ON LIFE IN THE WORKPLACE WITH SKELETON CREW at American Stage
The time is 2008, the place Detroit...this and more sets the stage for a hard hitting, knockout Tour de Force that chills you to the bone. Dominique Morisseau's Skeleton Crew is a searing, eye opening look into the workforce division between blue-collar and white-collar and what might happen when the division of power crosses the line. I think director L. Peter Callender sums it up best in his director's notes by saying, "Dominique Morisseau's "Detroit Project" plays: DETROIT '67, PARADISE BLUE, and SKELETON CREW, not unlike August Wilson's "Century Cycle" or Shakespeare's History plays, offer a sharply focused, raw, sometimes harsh, always heart-wrenching, beautifully penned look at the rigors of survival when driven souls must make high stakes, life or death choices. Dreams, hope, despair, mystery and secrets all fill the hearts and minds of her characters in the poetic and humorous Skeleton Crew." The tight knit ensemble of four of the finest actors to hit the stage in some time do Morisseau's words justice and do so with gusto. From the moment the music is heard, to the first words spoke you are gripping on every breathtaking moment in this top-notch performance, that left you winded and exaspirated in all the best ways possible. The chill left down my spine from this show still lingers even days later.
At the top of the show as the lights faded the audience was immediately thrust into 2008 Detroit in a Stamping plant, and through use of projections of factory workers on the line and music the mood was immediately heightend and the story came to life before our eyes. Times are tough, work is hard to come by and plants are shutting down right and left, and to top it all off it's winter and the heater is broken in the breakroom. For those unaware Detroit, Michigan is made up of road systems called "Mile Systems." Using this system is an easy way to identify the streets that run east to west throughout the region beginning downtown near the Detroit River. From 6 Mile to 8 Mile factories all over Detroit are shuttering doors and putting hundreds and thousands without jobs. Faye played brilliantly by Dee Selmore is the Union Rep for the plant and has been employed by the plant for 29 years. Upon coming into work one morning the Foreman Reggie played by Enoch Armando King informs Faye of the plant's plan to shutter its doors as well. In order to protect the others Faye holds that information inside and keeps it from the other workers until time is right to tell them of the future. For 6 months rumors of the plant closing have been circulating but after some time seem to fade away. Unlike the cold in the break room, however, the reality of the impending closure is now more true than ever.
Although this is truly an ensemble piece which is so nuanced in every moment to moment, one could not imagine the story working without all the pieces, however, centralized in its heart is Faye. Faye like I stated before has been with the plant for 29 years and is also the Union Rep. Faye has one son who she never sees due to circumstance. Faye is a Lesbian and due to cirumstance of her son's religious beliefs he maintains no contact with his mother. Faye also has been battling cancer and in her struggle financially with the downward spiral of the economy and her medical bills, she loses her house. Taking up refuge from the cold in the break room of the plant is the only place she finds solace, because its what she's always known and can deem this her safe haven. From the moment Dee Selmore graces the stage we are introduced to Faye even in her non-verbal moments Dee is breathtaking. She commands the stage ten-fold and our hearts ache for her character every step of the way. In every moment it was like as the audience we became a part of her story, she opened the door to her life, which in turn opened our eyes. We became the coffee she made every morning, we were the coat that kept her warm, and we were the boots that protected her feet. Her perfomance is so grounded and in the moment that we were truly engulfed in her story and her story became a part of each of us. Dee should be commended for truly gracing the stage with one of the strongest performances I've seen in sometime and every moment she is on stage is worth the price of admission.
Dez played by Rasell Holt is a hot-headed, strong-willed rookie of the plant. He likes to goof off and flirt with Shanita but I think at the heart of his story you find he's truly misunderstood. Rasell's performance is top notch and spot on, as an audience we are so drawn in to his moment to moment that we don't want to even blink for chance we might miss something. He at one point reveals he's carrying a gun on company property the shocking reveal is so heart wrenching that the whole audience gasped. One line that Dez has really stuck with me when he says, "Once you got your mind made up about me, you got your mind made up!" Too often in life and in the workplace supervisors fail to see the real true picture and lose the humanity often found in their employees. Dez has had a rough go of it, and has the potential to spiral out of control. Its up to the Supervisor to harness that emotion and choose how to handle the reaction. Rasell delivers a truly grappling performance that like a sucker punch to the heart never lets you go. You feel for him, and Rasell should be commended for a truly gripping performance that is one that will be seared into my memory for some time to come. Shanita played by Camille Upshaw is the comedic relief for the crew. She is pregnant and hormonal in every fashion of the word, but the endearing thing about her is she is a no-nonsense individual with a heart of gold. Camille delivers a beautiful performance here and should be commended for her work.
Enoch Armando King is the white- collar side of the plant and does so with such a searing realism you grow to hate Reggie throughout the show. At the heart of his character however there is the overwhelming feeling that he is just the pawn in the struggle of it all. Being overworked and often times overlooked by the higher-ups Reggie is just doing what is asked in order to survive and continue providing for his family. Under all of this internal struggle is a larger layer only to be revealed later in the show. Throughout the first half you see Reggie almost placating and allowing Faye to get away with whatever she wants to do. At the heart of it all is the deeper meaning that is a subtle but shell shock of a revelation that sidelines your hatred and makes you feel for his plight. Enoch could be compared to such performances as Denzel Washington in August Wilson's Fences, and Mr. Washington would be extremely proud.
Technically speaking Skeleton Crew outdoes itself and is a marvel to uphold. From the set design, to lighting and music this is an all immersive experience. You truly feel the grittiness of the factory, and the cold of the winter so much so that you forget you're in St. Petersburg, Florida. The use of Herbal Cigarettes, the smell of brewed coffee enhance the sense of smell and make you feel like you are living in this world right along with the actors. The costumes are exquisite right down to the dirt on the boots. Rachel Harrison and team should be commended on creating a truly gritty, grimy, and all encapsulating experience that makes you feel like you are in the heart of Detroit. American Stage consistently raises the bar in production aspects and I'm constantly in awe of the work put forth, which in turn makes for a more exciting and enjoyable experience for all.
Technically sound, expertly directed, brilliantly acted Skeleton Crew is the ticket to get. Full of humor, heart, and hard hitting lessons Dominique Morisseau's stunning work as part of the DETROIT PROJECT allows us to forget our lives and walk in someone else's shoes even for just a few hours. One more week remains to visit Detroit and the Skeleton Crew, and judging by the sold-out standing ovation this will be one of the hardest tickets to come by. Tickets can be purchased online at Americanstage.org. Don't be left out in the cold with this one, if Tampa Bay could send a show to Broadway even for a limited engagement this show would win a Tony for best revival. A hard hitting feat of grandeur I did not see coming, but I'm sure glad I did. Faye sums it up best when she says, "Lose the house, the family, the job....you know what's left? The Soul...I'm running on Soul." Skeleton Crew has major Soul and is a true testament to what great theatre should be... stories that stir the mind, change the soul, and spark a conversation. This is one conversation you absolutely cannot miss.
Photo Credit: American Stage Theatre