Interview with "Skeleton Crew's" Tonye Patano

"Skeleton Crew" Stars Tonye Patano

Actress Tonye Patano in The Old Globe's "Skeleton Crew"

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Best-known for playing marijuana queen Heylia James on Showtime's dark comedy Weeds, most wouldn't expect Tonye Patano to be so soft-spoken and thoughtful––the opposite of Heylia in demeanor––but her kind exterior is very much a part of who Tonye Patano is. The stark contrast is further proof of Patano's tremendous skill as an actress––no matter her role, Patano can step into a character's skin. Her television credits include roles on Sex and the City, Elementary, One Life to Live, and The Americans, but her primary love is for the stage.

Previously, Patano has appeared in The Last Goodbye at The Old Globe as the nurse to Juliet in a musical that merged Jeff Buckley music with Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Now, Patano is returning to The Old Globe, playing Faye in Dominique Morisseau's Skeleton Crew. The production, shown at the Globe's theatre-in-the-round, details the 2008 auto crisis in Detroit. As auto plants begin shutting down, Faye, mere months away from retirement, is stuck between loyalty to her coworkers and her own personal goals. The production, directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, premieres April 13th; in the meantime, we spoke with actress Tonye Patano about Skeleton Crew, the Detroit crisis, and what she keeps in the truck of her car.

You’re probably best-known for playing Heylia on Weeds.
I imagine that’s the case, as far as television goes. Playing a weed dealer has been a very good thing for me in the long term. I had a one-woman show that I did years ago called “Maids, Whores, and Nurses, May I Help You?” It’s the idea that, as a black woman in the theatre, that many times we get offered these [negative] roles. But I’ve learned that these characters are not an occupation; they’re a person. They have depth and meaning. Those stories are just as poignant and made to be told as any other. And Heylia was a good lady for me, so I liked that a lot.

She was a very strong and intense character.
She was. It’s a similar situation with Faye in [Skeleton Crew] now. These women are important in our culture and our family lives. It’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to these characters—they remind you of your relatives. In Faye, I see some of the same [characteristics] as in Heylia.

Tell me a little about Skeleton Crew.
Skeleton Crew is about the crisis with the auto industry in Detroit around 2008. A lot of the [auto] plants were shutting down. Writer Dominique [Morisseau], who is from Detroit, has family who she based my character on who actually worked at a plant.

Skeleton Crew The Old Globe

What can you tell me about the play’s characters?
There are four characters in the show. Dez is typical of the young 20-somethings growing up in Detroit: he’s always on the hustle, always has a plan. You think that [he’s] one thing—just like anybody, Dez and these characters present themselves and as one thing, but as the play goes on, you find out there’s something underneath.

There’s a young lady called Shanita who is pregnant and working the line. She loves her job—takes pride in her job—and I think that’s something Dominique [Morisseau] is excited to express and show. 

[The character] Reggie would probably have been a young Dez at one time, but ten years since, he’s actually made it over to management. He’s wearing a white collar and tie to work and looking after the plant. It’s a job that Faye helped him get because his mother and Faye were close.

And Faye is someone who has been [at the plant] for almost thirty years. She knows everything about the plant; she’s head of the union rep. All of the characters are very passionate about who they are, what they do, and how they present themselves to the world. It’s a very powerful, intimate, lovely piece that I’m really proud to be a part of.

It’s a very recent crisis that you are portraying. How was the research process for you in preparing for the role?
A lot of it for me has been watching Youtube and videos documentaries about Detroit—even before the crisis. It’s very rich in history about the working class and people who—for the first time—were able to take care of their families, send their kids to college, and buy homes with blue collar salaries and careers. For many, many years, that was the case. Detroit itself went through lots of changes.

One of the things Dominique wanted to stress was the idea that, in our country now—especially [after] the recent election—everyone is talking about the dissatisfaction of the white working class. But what people don’t understand is that working class is working class, and that includes all races and ethnicities. This is a play that shows the black working class. We don’t really talk about white or black, or any of that. Things are implied about the people who are higher up and run the company, but working class is just that: working class. 

Is that what you hope audiences will take away from Skeleton Crew?
Anyone who comes to this play will see themselves in these people and these characters. They’ll also see black people who are just like them. We love, we are passionate, we do what we need to do to take care of our families. I think people need to see that so we can start working together on these issues instead of separating.