By Barbara Smith
In describing how she creates characters in her play “Skeleton Crew,” now playing at the Old Globe Theatre, playwright Dominique Morisseau posits, “I chose to excavate these people from the inside.” And her skillful pen, fueled by a love for her home city and the people there, creates a mine field of explosive conflicts and insights.
“Skeleton Crew” is the third in a series of plays the award-winning Morisseau has written about her beloved Motown (“Detroit ’67, and “Paradise Blue” complete her “Detroit Trilogy”). Set in 2008 in Detroit’s last-standing auto stamping plant during the tough times that put thousands of autoworkers out of work, it is a fast-paced and engrossing mix of drama and comedy. As a prelude to the opening scene, we hear radio news quoting statistics on plants closing and dreary projections of joblessness. The scene is set for this 4-character, all African American, play that turns an intimate lens on their hopes, dreams, and struggles to survive in a changing economy and a changing world. Like August Wilson, whose decade cycle of plays paints an indelibly evocative portrait of the Pittsburgh’s Hill District and the colorful characters within, Morisseau has an uncanny gift for creating characters, dialogue and environment with a sensitivity and artistry that draws us in, invests us in each character’s struggles as each navigates a complex trajectory with passion and humor.
Ably directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg (the play is produced in association with San Diego’s MOXIE Theatre, where Sonnenberg serves as founding Artistic Director), the cast is led by Faye (tough, gritty, yet tender Tonye Patano), in whose 29 years at the plant, she has seen it all. “I know everything about this place,” she tells the younger worker Dez. “The walls talk to me. The dust on the floors write me messages. I’m in the vents…in the bulletin boards…in the chipped paint. Ain’t nobody can slip through the cracks past me up in here.” Only months away from a 30-year retirement package, Faye has a lot to lose should the plant close down.
Dez (Amari Cheatom) is young, brash, a warrior who is conflicted, working within a system he knows is rigged against him. Bent on acquiring enough overtime to leave the plant and open his own garage, he challenges Faye, the union steward, for not standing up for her workers. “Only thing the UAW do for me is force me to strike when I don’t even want to. I done paid enough dues in my life already,” he spews. His anger is tempered, in Cheatom’s finely nuanced portrayal, by his flirtation and desire to protect his co-worker Shanita.
As Shanita, Rachel Nicks adds an innocence and elegance to this family of workers. Pregnant, with ominously vague references to the baby’s father, Shanita loves and needs her job as she prepares for future motherhood. “I feel like I’m building something important. I love the way the line needs me,” she says. Just like the baby gestating inside her, she is proud to be “building something that you can see come to life at the end.”
Rounding out the crew is Reggie (Brian Marable), who rose through the ranks to become a supervisor. He and Faye have a history, a close bond through his mother, Faye having helped him get his first job at the plant, all of which complicates his role in management. He is deeply conflicted, having to enforce rules and challenge his workers, whose struggles strike home to him in profound ways. Marable’s internal struggle is thoroughly convincing as he must walk the line between the demands of his job and the tugs on his heart.
The play takes place entirely in the breakroom, the area where workers gather and talk. It is old and worn, with shabby couch, mismatched chairs, rusted lockers, a punch card machine and an old school boom box, a visual reminder of the plants that have turned into ghost towns, “the echoes of machines just runnin’ and runnin’ in the hollow space.” Signs entreating “No Gambling,” “Unit Meeting Thursday,” “No Smoking FAYE,” “Theft Alert” are posted so that the room takes on a personality of its own, like a fifth character. Staged in the round, the audience lives and breathes with the denizens in this intimate setting.
The Old Globe is the first regional theatre in the country to mount this thoroughly absorbing play. The sensitive artistry with which playwright Morisseau (also Executive Story Editor on Showtime’s barrier-breaking “Shameless”) has crafted the environment, the compelling power of the social conditions which shape the actions of the characters, and the poetry of the language she creates make this a deeply personal play with universal reach, impact and meaning. How much resolution you need to satisfy your soul will determine how light or heavy your heart is when you leave the theatre, because in this story, as in life, there are no easy answers when it comes to corporate greed vs. human need.
“Skeleton Crew” runs through May 7. For ticket information, visit www.theoldglobe.org.