Dominique Morisseau was moved to write Skeleton Crew, her compelling play about a group of Detroit auto workers, after the playwright met a woman who was reduced to living in her automobile – especially infuriating and heartbreaking in Motor City, where people are supposed to manufacture cars, not live in them.
The four characters of the play hang out before and after their shifts in the break room of a stamping plant — “the last small factory standing” servicing the Big Three automakers — in Detroit, Michigan around 2008. The plant is itself in danger of shutting down, and each of the people who work there is individually struggling with losses and disappointments. “Know what’s left…?” one of the characters says. “The soul…I’m running on soul now.”
This is Faye (portrayed by Lynda Gravatt), who has been working in the plant for 29 years. In a passage that hints at foreshadowing, and that reminded me of the final monologue in The Grapes of Wrath, Faye says at one point: “I know everything about this place…The walls talk to me. The dust on the floors write me messages. I’m in the vents. I’m in the bulletin boards. I’m in the chipped paint.”
Faye is the shop steward, and a maternal figure to everybody else, including the supervisor Reggie (Wendell B. Franklin) who is the kind of foreman who brings a portable heater from his own home, and is sick that he’s supposed to pretend that the workers he supervises “aint more than an employee ID number.” Still, Reggie has frequent confrontations with Dez (Jason Dirden), a reliable worker but with a big mouth on him, and some illicit items in his locker – including a gun. Dez has feelings for Shanita (Nikiya Mathis), a self-declared by-the-numbers employee who half-jokingly considers Dez’s flirtations sexual harassment. She is pregnant, but she won’t say by whom. Although they’ve been co-workers for years, they all try to keep their secrets and their struggles to themselves.
As the play unfolds, we learn more about their secrets, but also about their personalities – their tightened circumstances and their dreams, their flaws (Faye, for example, still smokes even though she has been diagnosed with lung cancer) and the deep-down decency that all of them share – and that we don’t necessarily see at first.
Skeleton Crew is the third and final drama in Morisseau’s Detroit trilogy, which take place in her hometown. (She now lives in New York and California.) Detroit ’67, which was presented at the Public Theater and the National Black Theater in 2013, is infused with the 60’s sounds of Motown; it uses the background of the 1960’s Detroit riots to tell the story of a brother and a sister who have converted the basement of their childhood home into an after-hours club. Paradise Blue, which debuted at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts last summer, takes place in a jazzy Detroit nightclub in 1949. All three plays of the trilogy offer ambitious African-American characters who are trying to fend off defeat. All three plays use music to echo the poetry of their character’s everyday speech. Skeleton Crew cleverly uses hip-hop. It is the music that Rez in particular listens to on his boombox, but it is also the music playing during the interludes between the break room scenes, the score to the electric robot dance choreographed and performed by Adesola Osakalumi wearing a hardhat. Seen through a window of the break room into the shop floor, the dance effectively reproduces the rhythm and the general feel of working on an auto assembly line.
Morisseau’s trilogy was clearly inspired by August Wilson’s American Century Cycle, ten plays all set in his hometown of Pittsburgh over the ten decades of the 20th century.
It’s easy to discern echoes of Wilson in Skeleton Crew. Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a noted interpreter of Wilson’s work as both a director and a performer, adroitly brings out Morisseau’s beautiful rhythms and the comic tones in the bickering among the characters.
As in Wilson, the often poetic language is rich but not precious, spoken by down-to-earth characters who embody the comedy and the tragedy of everyday lives. The cast, most of whom have performed in August Wilson’s plays as well, could not be better, with Lynda Gravatt especially memorable as somebody tired, weighed down, but not crushed.
Along with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Morisseau won the 2015 Steinberg Playwright Award, which honors promising dramatists with $50,000 grants apiece. But, for online denizens at least, she may be best known right now for the essay she wrote in December in American Theatre Magazine, “Why I Almost Slapped a Fellow Theater Patron, and What That Says About Our Theaters.” , about an encounter she had with an older white woman, who gave her free tickets to a show but asked her to quiet down during the performance. Morisseau’s use of this incident to expound upon white privilege in the theater and “microaggressions” generated an avalanche of online and social media commentary, most of it not supportive.
That essay might make me reluctant to sit next to Dominique Morisseau in a theater, but Skeleton Crew is just the latest of her plays to make me eager to see her work on stage.
The compassion she shows her characters manifests itself in nearly every line – some of them funny, some of them resonant with metaphor, some of them deeply affecting in their defiance and optimism….and their kindness:
“Why be a bum in Detroit? Ain’t make no sense, cold as it get. Soon as we get close to that last dime, we figure it make more sense to pay it on a bus ticket ‘steada rent. Take us a trip down to Miami or Fort Lauderdale or somethin’. If we gon’ be a bum, we’d say, might as well be a beach bum.”
“Cars backed up for miles cuz people don’t know how to merge. Don’t matter what freeway you take, it be the same selfish behavior on all of ‘em. Everybody got somewhere to be and don’t wanna let you in.”
“I’m not asking you to make up happy endings. All I’m asking is that you tell ’em they can’t write us off.”
Faye says that last bit of dialogue to Reggie about the management of the company. But it might as well be the people of Detroit saying that to the playwright about you and me and the world.
Click on any of the photographs by Ahron Foster to see them enlarged.