ST. PETERSBURG — The threat of unemployment is terrifying, especially when it affects an entire industry.
That’s what happening in Skeleton Crew at American Stage. Set in Detroit during the Great Recession of 2008, the play is centered around four African American factory workers at an automobile stamping plant, one of the few remaining in the city.
Playwright Dominique Morisseau’s award-winning script weaves acerbic wit and Detroits’s history — including its decline — through the drama. It addresses issues without getting too political or preachy. Hailing from Detroit, Morisseau has penned a Detroit Project cycle, of which Skeleton Crew is the third.
Under the direction of L. Peter Callender and with a superb cast, Skeleton Crew is a compelling story, told through fluid, snappy dialogue by dynamic characters. It never feels staged and the actors’ conversations are effortlessly natural.
The entire play takes place in the break room, where rumors that the plant will be closing soon loom. It adds another layer to the pall of grime that covers everything, with stained ceiling tiles, panels of oppressive, institutional fluorescent lighting and a sad couch. Steven K. Mitchell designed the spot-on set.
The constant whir of machine sounds brings in the factory as its own entity. Another clever element is the silhouette of factory workers on the dust-covered windows, moving in robot-like unison as the assembly line with choreography by Alex Jones. That bit evokes Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation video.
Tough-talking Faye (played with pluck by Dee Selmore) is no-nonsense and has worked at the plant the longest. Reggie (Enoch Armando King), the factory’s foreman, worked up to that position after Faye got him a job there years before. The younger line workers are Dez (Rasell Holt), an idealistic, ambitious young man whose stubbornness is often mistaken for insubordination. He’s also a flirt, always trying to holler at Shanita (the captivating Camille Upshaw), who is pregnant and laser focused on her job. She can shut Dez down with quickness and Holt and Upshaw exhibit natural chemistry when they bicker.
The four are tightly bonded, anchored by Faye. They’re all concerned about her cigarette smoking, since her breast cancer is in remission. Reggie posts “No Smoking - Faye!” signs around the break room in vain. No one ever reads any of his signs. As Reggie, King nails the frustration that comes with the challenge of trying to be a fair boss, but finds it difficult to maintain respect.
When Reggie lets Faye know that the plant will be closing, she’s put in an uncomfortable predicament. She’s the union representative at the plant so her first instinct is to warn Dez and Shanita. But when Reggie appeals to her to wait, we get a glimpse of Faye’s tender side and her personal allegiance to him.
Meanwhile, the plant’s closing presents even bigger problems for Faye. Reggie is also nervous. He plans to send his daughter to college and has recently bought a house. “I own something that can’t nobody take from me," he says. "That means something.” It’s a nod to Detroit’s legacy of housing discrimination.
Thieves plague Detroit’s abandoned buildings, and suspicions fly when sheet metal starts disappearing. In this moment, Holt as Dez crystallizes how infuriating it feels for young black men to be the usual suspect. He’s forced to carry a gun for protection in the crime-ridden city, but it makes him look like a criminal.
The tension breaks with humor, including a hilarious rant about people not knowing how to merge on the freeway. Upshaw earned spontaneous audience applause after that bit.
But for all of the scary uncertainty the story presents, Faye offers inspiration.
“I’m a born and raised Detroiter. East-sider. If it’s one thing I know how to do… it’s rise the hell up.”
IF YOU GO
Skeleton Crew runs through Feb. 23. $44-$54. American Stage Theater Company, 163 Third St. N, St. Petersburg. (727) 823-7529. americanstage.org.