In theater circles, Dominique Morisseau is regarded as one of the most significant and talented African-American playwrights working today. Last year, she made the list of Top 20 Most Produced Playwrights in America, and has recently penned a popular three-play cycle entitled The Detroit Projects.
The last of the trilogy, Skeleton Crew, is currently playing at Studio Theatre, and marks Morisseau’s debut in the D.C. area. Directed by Patricia McGregor, the play takes place in 2008 and revolves around a group of auto-plant workers, grappling with the likely possibility of the plant’s closure and their impending unemployment.
When actress Caroline Stefanie Clay, a D.C.-native who finished a Broadway run this summer of Little Foxes, learned of Skeleton Crew, she jumped at the chance to return home to take part in the role of Faye, a woman who has spent her career at one of Detroit’s last auto-stamping plants.
“I have been following Dominique Morisseau for some time. She is not even 40 and yet has created this incredibly prolific body of work,” says Clay, who is making her Studio debut. “I am always on the search and support of female voices of color.”
Similar to August Wilson’s Century Cycle about the city of Pittsburgh, Clay was impressed with Morisseau’s own hometown curiosity and what she has accomplished with her trio of plays.
“Her mission is to really celebrate her hometown of Detroit, really taking out the myth and celebrating the courage,” she says. “In 2008, Detroit really struggled with the closing of the plants. I know Detroiters, and always found them to be very quick-witted and practical. It’s a powerful story.”
Having never been to Detroit, Clay delved into her character by reading journalist Herb Boy’s Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination.
“The book shows how black Detroiters are the grandchildren and great grandchildren of people who came in search of a better life and its industrialization provided that,” Clay says. “One of things the book deals with is the collapse of the auto industry and how it became code for urban failure and black failure. I was drawn to this whole story.”
The powerful Skeleton Crew wrestles with some of the most important issues of our day—the decline of American manufacturing, the state of unions today, the challenges and complications of upward mobility in the United States, particularly for black Americans.
Clay’s character, she admits is not an easy person to know.
“She’s someone who can make it hard for you if she doesn’t like you, but she’s earned every spike that she has,” she says. “These four people are working in this plant and face the alarm of the impending closing. It’s about pressure and conflict, and I have just found it a joy to play.”
Working alongside Clay on stage are Tyee Tilghman as Reggie, Jason Bowen as Dez, and Shannon Dorsey as Shanita.
“They are a great group and we make up this wonderful quartet of voices. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know them as people and as artists,” Clay says. “Each of our characters walks with secrets—something they are willing to live for. These four people in different ways are incredibly aspirational.”
As Faye, Clay rarely leaves the stage and is rarely quiet.
“The people who know me know that’s not a problem for me. At the same time, that takes technique. The level of breath control needed for that ongoing commentary is important,” she says. “Faye finds herself in such high-stakes circumstances that in many ways, her constant need to talk and weigh in and advise and submit her opinion is her armor. She likes to turn the lens on other people so no one is looking at her. She is so vulnerable and so fragile; her very survival is making sure no one looks too closely.”
That’s something that Clay believes is universal, regardless of race or gender. It’s one of the reasons she wanted to do this powerful part.
“What I love about her is she is so human, so complex, so lost, you don’t always like her but you can’t help but love her,” she says. “We all have that family member that we say, ‘oh god,’ but thank god for them.”
The show has been up and running for a couple of weeks and has recently been extended to Oct. 15 thanks to a great critical and audience response.
at Studio Theatre
closes October 8, 2017
Details and tickets
Clay has enjoyed milling with the audiences afterwards and soliciting feedback on what they thought of the show.
“Audiences are walking out saying this is about the nature of family, the nature of love and how it turns up in the most unanticipated corners of human interaction. There’s a universality of the story and people aren’t expecting the unanticipated humor,” she says. “It’s set in 2008, and make no mistake, this is in and around the first four years of the Obama administration. On one side, there’s a real hope about what can happen. The other side is the reality of ‘I lost my house’ and people are deeply moved and weeping. It’s a wonderful mix of stuff happening and it’s really exciting.”
Before Little Foxes, Clay had appeared in four other Broadway plays (Drowning Crow, Doubt, Come Back, Little Sheba and The Royal Family), all between 2004-2009. She took a break from New York and returned to D.C. in 2010 to care for her mother.
Clay turned in some powerful performances while here. DC audiences may have first seen her in Clementine in the Lower 9 at Forum (2013). Among others: Gideon’s Knot at Forum and NextStop Theatre, The Widow Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, and The Blood Quilt at Arena Stage.
“There’s nothing that creates perspective like stepping away. You only get one mom. Her illness was a metaphor for my being tired and taking a step back,” Clay says, and happily reports her mom has blossomed and is now living on her own again.
“Little Foxes was my first time at the age I am and the sensibility I am now having been away from New York.”
Once Skeleton Crew is closes on October 8, Clay says she’ll return to New York and continue looking for plays with strong messages and hopes to continue finding works from strong female voices of color.