By Carol Rocamora . . .
Compassion is such a precious commodity these days, isn’t it? That’s what makes the revival of Skeleton Crew, Dominique Morriseau’s heartwarming 2016 play, so welcome and so watchable in these turbulent and contentious times.
Indeed, the folks that frequent the factory break room featured in this play are going to need a lot of compassion. Set in 2008 in Detroit, the auto industry is in peril and the auto-stamping plant where they work is going to close within a year, so their lives and livelihoods are on the line. It’s how they face this crisis that makes this play so engaging.
Morisseau has populated this colorful break room with four compelling and colorful characters, pulsating with contradictions. There’s Faye (Phylicia Rashad), the union representative and mother figure of the group. She’s a fixture around the place – having been there for 29 years, hoping to make it till 30 when she gets her pension. She’s put in a moral dilemma when Reggie (Brandon J. Dirden), the unit foreman and family friend of Faye’s late mother, confides in her that the plant will be shut down. How can she hide that threat from Dez (Joshua Boone) and Shanita (Chanté Adams), the two young workers in her unit, while she tries to pressure Reggie to fight with management for their protection and well-being? When she hears that Shanita (pregnant and single) has just received another job offer but will turn it down because the auto plant is where she belongs (her father worked in the industry), Faye’s dilemma is heightened. And what about Dez? A talented worker, he’s getting into fights and is carrying a gun concealed in his backpack. When the news comes of robberies at the plant, Faye suspects Dez – but at the same time wants to protect him.
A lot happens in these suspense-packed two hours, revealing the humanity of each character and making us love them for it. Reggie discovers Dez’s gun and a mysterious bag in his locker (a terrific Act One finale) – will Reggie turn him in? And did Dez really steal the items in that bag? (Details are revealed in Act Two.) Meanwhile, will Dez finally win Shanita’s affections and break her tough exterior? And why, as it turns out, has Faye been sleeping in the break room for a month now? What is her secret? And what is the momentous news that the conscience-wracked Reggie must finally tell her?
All this unfolds in a series of tightly constructed scenes, set in the larger context of a plant and a city in crisis. A framework encases
Michael Carnahan’s colorful set, upon which vivid projections of the factory and Detroit flash between scenes (terrific projections are by Nicholas Hussong). Accompanied by Jimmy Keys aka “J. Keys”’s original music (sound design by Rob Kaplowitz), they feature a creative dancer (Adesola Osakalumi) performing choreographed robotic movements. These arresting scene changes add a powerful dimension to the production, depicting an industry in which these characters are but cogs in a wheel of a mechanized, uncaring society.
This rich theatrical evening is directed with skill, flair, and heart by the versatile Ruben Santiago-Hudson (who is having an exciting season on Broadway, having just come off a successful run of Lackawanna Blues). His superb cast features a powerfully understated, warm and wonderful Phylicia Rashad as the human heartbeat of the break room, and Brandon J. Dirden, Joshua Boone, and Chanté Adams all giving superb performances. Together, they are a fine and cohesive ensemble.
Meanwhile, Dominique Morisseau is emerging as one of our most compelling contemporary writers. Her cycle of Detroit plays (Detroit ’69, Paradise Blue and Skeleton Crew), like August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, offers a microcosm of the American experience at a vital time in our socio-economic history. Like Lynn Nottage (Sweat and Clyde’s), Morisseau is contributing to the portrait of America’s working class with humanity, compassion and dignity at a time when it’s really needed.
Skeleton Crew, by Dominique Morisseau, produced by Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, now until February 20.
Photos: Matthew Murphy