American Stage’s ‘Skeleton Crew’ explores family, community, job loss in embattled Detroit

By J.A. Jones, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – Playwright Dominique Morisseau’s award-winning drama in “Skeleton Crew,” playing now at American Stage, examines the lives of four auto plant workers in her hometown of Detroit with a compassionate, unflinching eye.

Set in 2008, the play’s action explores the personal stakes of characters during the period in which two of the Motor City’s three carmakers sought a government bail-out, and the U.S. veered into a deep recession. 

The story offers a grave depiction of the country’s ongoing destabilization as it impacts the working class — in this case, Black – Americans. But the brilliance of Morisseau’s writing is that while it never shirks from the characters’ troubles, she offers complex humanity full of humor, pathos, and ultimately, a will to survive. 

It’s a tightly drawn piece, and the ensemble skillfully builds fast-paced tension punctuated by humorous observations and sly wit. L. Peter Callender’s capable direction fully complements Morisseau’s masterful brushstrokes, enabling us to experience both the danger and the joy of the world she creates. 

Callender also employs a soundtrack of the times, interspersing melodious hip-hop with faves by Aretha, Detroit’s own Queen of Soul. Scene changes offer interludes that feature a stylized silhouette backdrop of robotic -plant-workers, knocking the play just slightly outside the boundaries of realism.

Dee Selmore guides the play’s moral and philosophical arc as Faye, the wise-cracking, motherly union rep who has undoubtedly seen her fair share of life’s ups and downs. Selmore’s portrayal deftly draws Faye as both the salty ‘auntie’ you don’t wanna mess with — and the aging wounded warrior without a safety net.

Enoch Armando King is both angry and vulnerable as Reggie, the team supervisor whose ‘middle management’ noose tightens steadily around his own neck as he plays a dangerous game to buy time from the inevitable.

Morisseau also uses the characters of Faye and Reggie to delve into the question of how “family” is created, maintained, or fractured – as King brings a touching resonance to the role of a spiritual ‘son’ who will accept Faye’s sexuality when her own blood relatives won’t.

Camille Upshaw, as Shanita, is the endearing ’round the way genius’ – an optimist with a baby on the way. Bringing an enjoyable bravado and vulnerability to the role, Upshaw’s Shanita offers a “bright copper penny gleaming from cracks” attitude that keeps the audience on her side throughout.

In the role of Dez, Rasell Holt is the play’s proverbial “young black male,” who convincingly delivers as Morisseau’s poetic, charming, do-for-self, anti-establishment, hardworking hustler and dreamer. Morisseau uses Dez to remind the audience that we’ll never walk in his shoes – not only because we may not want to, but also because today’s youth don’t have the luxury of walking — they’re racing, dodging, and treading water through the crumbling chaos we’ve left them. 

Offering an insider’s view of the survivors in a city left for dead – post white flight, political mismanagement, and the Great Recession – “Skeleton Crew” manages to scrape hope from the fortitude, humor, courage, love — and willful insistence to live – found in those who have no choice but to “keep on keepin’ on.”

“Skeleton Crew” by Dominique Morisseau, directed by L. Peter Callender, playing now through February 23 at American Stage, 163 3rd St. N, St. Petersburg.  

For more information or to purchase tix, visit www.americanstage.org or call American Stage’s Box Office at 727-823-PLAY (7529).

To reach J.A. Jones, email jjones@theweeklychallenger.com

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