Set at the height of the Great Recession in 2008’s Detroit, Skeleton Crew offers moving character studies. Written by Dominique Morisseau, a playwright and MacArthur Fellow, Skeleton Crew is number 3 in her Detroit Cycle series. In Skeleton Crew she showcases the stories, cadences, and cares of four African American auto plant workers.
As the last small automotive plant still operational, it is clear from the beginning of the play that the plant’s end is near. Management ramps up “notices” and inspections, hoping to fire workers for small infractions. The crew is tacitly led by strong-willed Faye (Jamecia Bennett); she has a nearly 30-year tenure at the plant, a leadership role within their union, and a motherly concern for all her fellow workers. When Foreman Reggie (Darius Dotch), breaks protocol and tells her about the impending shut-down, she is split between her concern for the other workers and for Reggie (it comes out later that she and Reggie’s mother were long-time lovers, so Reggie is basically her son). The pregnant Shanita (Nadege Matteis), whose strong work-ethic and meticulous hands make her nearly irreplaceable, and the scrappy, boisterous Dez (Mikell Sapp), round out this four-person cast. This show shines with complex characters and unexpected interactions. Morisseau doesn’t pull punches with these characters – they forge their own paths. Faye decides whether or not to put herself ahead of Reggie; Dez decides whether or not it makes sense to steal in the face of losing his dreams of his own auto shop; Shanita decides whether or not to start a romantic entanglement. These characters feel real and not just because of their economic struggles.
This cast works incredibly well together, executing Morisseau’s flowing, colloquial language flawlessly. Part of what is interesting about this play is Morisseau’s sense of timing -- this show has many acts, and experiencing its tempered pace slowly reveals layers of characterization. Bennett’s Faye is heartbreakingly familiar -- from the moment we first catch her not so apologetically smoking in the breakroom, Bennet wears Faye’s eroding control like a mask noticeable only to the audience. Shanita could come off too saccharine or naive, but Matteis brings a vulnerable knowing to the part. From her enchanting smile to her often deeply sad eyes, Matteis brings a bodily knowing of Shanita that makes it almost impossible to stop watching her. I loved to hate Reggie. His change between the first and the second halves of the show reinforces his powerlessness; he feels like every middle manager I have ever had. Torn between his duty to his family, the higher ups, and his peers, there are no easy choices for him. Perhaps my favorite performance of the evening was Sapp as the lovable renegade, Dez. His infectious moods sweep the stage, washing over the other characters.
The whole show takes place in the times between the factory floor and home– the break room at the plant is supposed to be a holding space, an in-between space. No one is supposed to inhabit it the way our protagonists do. Everything about it—from its dingy appearance to its broken or poorly-functioning appliances—signals that it isn’t meant to be loved or cared for. Nicole DelPizzo’s set feels like every breakroom I have ever been in, complete with windows for management’s spying. The breakroom acts as stand-in for the rest of the plant that we do not get to see. When its door is open, the bellow of the plant asserts itself, reminding the workers and the audience that the breakroom’s calm is only a temporary respite. Of course, with the plant soon closing, the breakroom itself is a stand-in for the whole plant; viewed in this light, the roar our protagonists hear is the outside world, coming to crush their dreams and well-laid plans.
This is a beautiful and moving 2.5 hours of theater; a portal into the 2008 crash, I can’t imagine seeing this show and ever thinking about those lost jobs abstractly again.
Skeleton Crew runs at Yellow Tree Theatre until March 1.