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Civil-Rights Veteran Stars in All-Black Production of ‘Skeleton Crew’

Lizan Mitchell plays an out lesbian union boss in the Alley Theatre's season opener.

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The main character in Dominique Morisseau’s dynamic drama Skeleton Crew is Faye, an out and proud lesbian.

“No bones about it: she is not without flaws, but she feels good about being Faye,” says Lizan Mitchell, the Harlem-based actress who leads an all-black cast in the opening production of the Alley Theatre’s 2018–19 season.

“She is really helping me open up to myself because of her courage to be who she is, unapologetically. Basically, she is okay with Faye,” Mitchell adds. 

“When we marched for desegregation, almost the whole town went to jail. They were booking people in a building the size of a convention center.”

Lizan Mitchell

Skeleton Crew premiered off-Broadway in 2016, but its setting is the break room of one of Detroit’s last automotive stamping plants in 2008. “The whole country was in recession at that time, and the auto industry was in particular peril,” Mitchell recalls.

In a tight 90 minutes, loyalties are tested and boundaries are crossed among Faye, who is the union steward, two entry-level co-workers, and a tight-lipped manager, as rumors fly about the factory closing.

Faye endures an “extra serving” of potential discrimination because she is both black and gay, as well as the oldest worker and oh-so-close to retiring with a pension.

Mitchell, who is not gay, grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, which she calls “one of the places at the center of the civil-rights movement” in the 1950s and ’60s. She was just a youngster when, unescorted, she hopped on a bus leaving for the March on Washington in August 1963 and saw Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

The opening production of the Alley Theatre’s 2018-19 season, Skeleton Crew features an all-black cast.

“Being politically aware was part of the lifestyle. It was normal,” she recalls. “When we marched for desegregation, almost the whole town went to jail. They were booking people in a building the size of a convention center.”

Mitchell tells LGBTQ rights activists and allies that in the face of oppression, “You go on anyway. You do it with strength, love, and stamina. That is the foundation of happiness. We have the power to do what is just.”

Recently, Mitchell’s eyes were opened to the world of transgender people when she co-starred with actress Kim Tatum, aka Mzz Kimberley, in a London production of Chisa Hutchinson’s play Dead and Breathing. Mzz Kimberley gained fame as the trans “Roller-skating Wonder Woman” who performed Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” on Britain’s Got Talent. Dead and Breathing was a tug-of-war between Carolyn, a sick rich woman (Mitchell) who tries to convince her nurse (Mzz Kimberley) to assist in her suicide. Mitchell had created the role of Carolyn off-Broadway when the play premiered at the National Black Theatre in 2015.

“It was my first time in the UK,” says Mitchell. “Kim introduced me to her friends in Liverpool who are transgender. They were all so loving. They are not joking.”

In March, Mitchell returned to the States and will perform in Houston for the first time.

Appearing with her in Skeleton Crew will be Alley Resident Company member David Rainey as Reggie, Candice D’Meza (Alley’s The Cake, Main Street Theater’s Men on Boats) as Shanita, and Brandon J. Morgan (Alley’s The Great Society, Stages Repertory Theatre’s My Mañana Comes) as Dez.

Skeleton Crew, directed by Taibi Magar, will be performed on the Alley’s smaller Neuhaus Stage.

What: Skeleton Crew
When: September 7–October 7
Where: Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave.
Tickets: AlleyTheatre.org

This article appears in the September 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Don Maines

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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