‘Skeleton Crew’: in conversation with Jay O’Leary and Tracy Michelle Hughes

Jay O’Leary, left, and Tracy Michelle Hughes. Photo by Lou Daprile

A hallmark of Tracy Michelle Hughes’ performances—whether in Trouble in Mind with Intiman, Bright Half Life with New Century Theatre Company, Crowns at Taproot or many more—is the transfixing, unencumbered honesty in her acting. In Skeleton Crew, Dominique Morisseau’s play set in a Detroit auto plant on the verge of collapse, Hughes stars as Faye, a dedicated worker on the verge of retirement.

Jay O’Leary moved to Seattle in 2016 to participate in Intiman’s Emerging Artists program and has indeed emerged as a powerful local force. Primarily a teaching artist and director, in addition to an actor and choreographer, O’Leary helms Skeleton Crew, ArtsWest’s season opener. The two sat down before starting rehearsals to talk about the play, personal joy and the psychological importance of theater.

Jay O’Leary We’re all tired of seeing plays, movies, TV shows where people of color are in a tragic situation. Dominique Morisseau wrote a play about people who are good at their jobs, who have pride in their work, who feel like they’re forging change and progress. She was smart to put [Skeleton Crew] in an auto plant because A, you have to be skilled, and B, it’s hard, strenuous, dangerous work. You could lose a limb any second if you don’t come correct.

Tracy Michelle Hughes For Faye to be doing it almost 30 years is amazing. There’s so much power and grit in the play that everyone can relate to something. I don’t know much about Dominique. This play is the third in a trilogy?

Jay The Detroit Project, yes. She said she imagined how folks in Pittsburgh reacted to August Wilson and his 10-play cycle, so full of pride and joy that those plays immortalized their lives and she said, “You know what? I wanna do that with Detroit.”

For Skeleton Crew, I was looking around for sounds, poems, pictures that say, “this is the play” to me, and there are two [poems] from Nikki Giovanni. She says, “Style has a profound meaning to Black Americans. If we can’t drive, we will invent walks and the world will envy the dexterity of our feet. If we can’t have ham, we will boil chitterlings; if we are given rotten peaches, we will make cobblers; if given scraps, we will make quilts; take away our drums, and we will clap our hands. We prove the human spirit will prevail. We will take what we have to make what we need. We need confidence in our knowledge of who we are.”

That is the play to me. If everything was taken from you, where do you go? What’s your personal activity that brings you joy? In Skeleton Crew, we’re trying to nourish the soul in a derelict world. In a disposable world, how do you provide nourishment for your soul?

Tracy For me it’s little things like reading and getting out in nature. I’m not gonna go hiking and skydiving, I’m not gonna do all that. [laughs] But to look up and see something else there instead of all the crap going on…I have to go outside. That’s what makes me happy right now, because everything else is killing me.

Jay My personal joy that I can achieve no matter the circumstance would be to be by water and to write and to be by myself.

Tracy I don’t think enough people spend time in solitude. The phones—I work for T-Mobile, and the phone is attached to the hand like it’s got a big, heavy-duty magnet.

That’s part of the beauty of coming to a theater and turning your phone off. It necessitates presence and attention.

Tracy In interviews for my day job they’d always go, “So…you do theater,” like it’s this little thing, this hobby. And I’d say, “Theater is my psychiatrist.” If I go too long without it, my whole attitude is negative. It’s the one place we can let it all out. You probably feel the same.

Jay It’s interesting you say it’s like your psychiatrist because the soul-driving force for me, as a director and a teacher, is creating a space that encourages vulnerability and growth. When I’d see folks struggling, I wanted to help by letting them know that that moment isn’t it. That moment of struggle, that moment of sadness, that moment of “I’m not good enough” is actually a crock of shit.

Tracy It’s so easy to listen to that voice, especially for actors, because we need that gratification. I remember when I was 25 and I thought I knew everything. And then I turned 35 and I thought I knew everything. And now I’m 50 and you know what? I realize I don’t know nothing and I’m never gonna know everything. When I was younger, I wouldn’t allow myself to be vulnerable. Now I’m like, just give it all to me and I’ll put it all out there on stage.

Sept. 20 – Oct. 14