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Spine: What’s Left of America’s Makers, ‘Skeleton Crew’ at Studio Theatre

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Lord, in a bourgeois town
It’s a bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

Any Washington theatregoer who craves a working class show, where the characters are authentic and not liberal constructions of what working class folk ought to be, knows what Leadbelly was saying about Washington, DC.

Jason Bowen, Caroline Stefanie Clay, and Shannon Dorsey. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Thus, any Washington theatregoers who know what Leadbelly is singing about should turn their gaze toward Studio Theatre for a glimpse at Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew.

This finely crafted play with its deeply felt cast of four is set in Detroit during the economic collapse and subsequent bailout of 2008. It’s the final part of a Detroit trilogy, which includes Paradise Blue, set in a gentrifying 1949, and Detroit ’67 that is infused with Motown in the riot-filled year.

Skeleton Crew isn’t about the rich cats who scampered away free and clear during the downturn, without a lawmaker in sight. No, it’s about the folks left on the line until the bitter end, as America’s industrial base is shipped abroad or sold to the next robotic arm.

Skeleton Crew is about what’s left of America’s makers, not the paper pushers or the money lenders or the lawyers who keep everyone in line.

Jason Bowen and Shannon Dorsey. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Skeleton Crew is about loyalty and resilience and the fight for what is right.

Yes, Skeleton Crew is that DC rarity: it’s about people who have never stepped inside a theatre because American theatre seldom gives them a place on the stage.

Directed with perfect pitch by Patricia McGregor, the story focuses on Faye, a twenty-nine-year veteran automaker, as in UAW union member. As played by Caroline Stephanie Clay, Faye couldn’t be tougher or more vulnerable. If you ever want to fight until the bitter end, you’d want Faye on your side.

Her youngster union members include Dez and Shanita. As played by Jason Bowen and Shannon Dorsey, these two dreamers of a different sort are irresistible. Despite whatever flaws they might have, you want them to make it, to realize their full selves.

Tyee Tilghman and Caroline Stefanie Clay. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Then comes Faye’s real youngster, her supervisor Reggie. Tyee Tilghman gives Reggie, in a middle management white collar and turtleneck, that stuck look, as his bosses press him to downsize and he presses to save his workers’ (and his own) livelihoods.

All of Marci Rodgers’ costumes are equally spot-on wonderful.

Set designer Tim Brown has to be given the credit for transporting Studio’s predominantly bourgeois audience into the center of America’s working class heartland. Mr. Brown has wedged a little bit of a Detroit auto factory into Studio’s Mead Theatre, so seamlessly wedged as to seem part of the architecture. As a result, the audience is right there, in the factory break room, wanting to break as many rules as Dez and Faye combined.

Nancy Schertler’s lights and Everett Elton Bradman’s sounds make the scenography complete. We, the audience, are in a real place with real characters making real and difficult choices.

And that is the power of Skeleton Crew.

Contemporary American theatre need not surrender this artistic ground to long-form TV. Real people with real stories making real decisions lie at the heart of great drama. Skeleton Crew might not be great drama, but it’s playing in the ballpark, and it’s about time theatre stepped up to the plate.

Running Time: 2 hours and 5 minutes, plus a 15-minute intermission.

Skeleton Crew plays through October 8, 2017, at The Studio Theatre – 1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

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