After almost two years of lending her acting chops to audiences through a screen, Philadelphia native Lisa Strum couldn’t think of a better return to the physical stage than portraying the “powerhouse” character of Faye in Bristol Riverside Theatre’s production of Skeleton Crew.
“She’s a very larger-than-life, God-like character, and it’s been an honor, a blessing to give this woman life and find ways of bringing her to the stage, finding parts of myself to be open and brave because this is a very brave undertaking for all of us in this show,” Strum told The Times. “There’s no safety net.”
Skeleton Crew, the second show in Bristol Riverside Theatre’s 35th mainstage season, follows four Detroit auto workers as they navigate rumors that their factory is closing. Faye, Shanita (Joell Weill), Dez (Malik Childs) and Reggie (Marquis Wood) must figure out how they’ll move forward if the rumors are, in fact, true. According to Strum, though the show is set in 2008, the workers’ struggles can apply to the present day, especially to those who lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think this is a really important play, especially for Bristol, Pennsylvania,” said Strum. “I’m not certain that they’ve had an all-Black play here at Bristol Riverside Theatre before. It’s a very universal story and it’s being executed really well.”
Strum is thrilled to be part of Skeleton Crew, the third play written by Dominique Morriseau as part of her Detroit Project – a three-play cycle that includes Paradise Blue and Detroit ‘67.
“I’m a big fan of her and how she captures Detroit and its people, its rhythms, its vernacular. She writes like an August Wilson, even like a Shakespeare. The language is so potent that you have no choice but to rise up to it,” said Strum. “She’s writing incredible roles for African Americans, for Black people, telling our stories. She writes so specifically and so wonderfully that the more I speak her language and her words, especially in this play, I feel like, was I raised in Detroit? Am I from there? It’s quite mesmerizing.”
After seeing a production of Skeleton Crew some time ago, Strum decided that one day, she would portray the character of Faye. But she didn’t anticipate it to happen so quickly. Skeleton Crew director Cameron Knight, whom Strum previously worked with in Fences, approached her about taking on the role at Bristol Riverside Theatre. Typically, Faye is played by women in their late 50s and older. When Skeleton Crew hits Broadway next month, The Cosby Show actress Phylicia Rashad, 73, will star as Faye. As for Strum, she’s in her 40s.
“A little part of me felt insecure that I wasn’t quite old enough. Will I be able to find her physically? Will I be convincing? I think I was worried about a lot of superficial things. But I decided to just jump in,” Strum said. “It’s been really lovely. It’s been a gift. Faye is such a powerhouse of a character. You see a woman navigate many different plains, taking care of people, acting as people’s parents, trying to instill wisdom into others, giving people advice, holding people accountable. And at the same time, she’s dealing with her own struggles.”
Following such a lengthy break from in-person acting, Strum and her co-stars hit the ground running with Skeleton Crew. However, Strum shared that Morriseau’s work makes her feel “challenged in the best way possible.”
“The dialogue is fast-paced, everyone contributes and does a lot of heavy lifting. Since I play Faye, I’m maybe doing a little bit more heavy lifting. So if I’m off, things can go off. It’s just really trying to stay focused, stay on top of things, take care of ourselves and feed off the energy of the audience,” she said. “Dominique’s work also creates such camaraderie among the cast. We are a family. It’s been very nurturing on all fronts.”
Strum described her return to the stage like riding a bike. While you don’t forget, there’s a bit of an adjustment period after a long break.
“It’s getting your mouth to work, your body to work, listening, projecting and all of those things that you do as actors,” she said. “But once we found our groove, we really got into it.”
When asked to share a few final words, Strum stressed that, at its heart, Skeleton Crew is about family and relationships.
“It’s how people navigate difficulty when they’re being pressed up against a wall, when they have to make difficult decisions, and how people take care of each other, which I think people can relate to, especially with the pandemic. A lot of people stepped up in their communities. People were taking care of each other because we had to,” she said. “This play is a mirror of that – people working together to survive in the best way they know how. I think people should come and see themselves, see a reflection of who they are and be blessed.”
Skeleton Crew runs through Nov. 21. Tickets range from $10 to $50, with discounts available for students and military. A limited number of $10 tickets are available for Bristol Township residents courtesy of Flager & Associates, PC. Audience members must show proof of vaccination and wear a mask.
For tickets and more information, visit brtstage.org or call 215-785-0100. Bristol Riverside Theatre is located at 120 Radcliffe St. in Bristol.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org