Theater Review: “Skeleton Crew” — Working Under Pressure

Skeleton Crew offers a redemptive look at a national tragedy — the financial crisis of 2008.

Skeleton Crew by Dominique Morisseau. Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakin. Staged by the Huntington Theatre Company at South End / Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA, Boston, MA, through March 31.

Patricia R. Floyd and Jonathan Louis Dent in the Huntington Theatre Company production of “Skeleton Crew.” Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

By David Cruz

I was pleased to hear Dionne Warwick’s “You’re Gonna Need Me” playing as I took my seat to the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Skeleton Crew. It’s a silky jam that was produced by famed Motown songwriting team Holland–Dozier–Holland. By the song’s release in 1973, the group was working with Warner Bros. in New York, having left Motown due to payment disputes involving label-owner Berry Gordy. Gordy had also relocated Motown to Los Angeles after the events of the 1967 riots that wracked Detroit. While “You’re Gonna Need Me” is not a true Motown hit, the backing band plays in the style, bass grooving along as Warwick croons, predicting regret and loss for the listener:

You’re gonna wake up when time has taken your throne
You’ll taste the bitterness of being alone
There’s no splendor in the darkness of night
When there’s no loving arms to hold you tight

You better stop and think about what you’re doing

The song’s connection to Detroit is not immediately apparent, but Warwick was sampled on “Stop!”, a song which appears in a scene change in Skeleton Crew. It’s a track from the last album of Detroit native James Yancey AKA J Dilla, a groundbreaking hip-hop producer who died of a rare blood disorder in 2006. Skeleton Crew is littered with songs by Dilla and his friends and collaborators, many of whom passed within a few years of him. Dilla’s last album Donuts is an album about death, produced from his hospital bed as he stared down his own imminent mortality. It’s a fitting musical choice for a play about the Motor City facing the demise of its industry.

Skeleton Crew takes place two years after Dilla’s death, just before the economic crash of 2008. Union workers in an auto factory struggle as they come to realize that the factory is going to close and they may lose their jobs. Given that so many lived through (or is that survived?) the economic crash, we know that this story reverberates beyond Detroit and the stakes are much higher than just these workers’ positions. When the plant’s foreman Reggie (Maurice E. Parent) mentions his newly-purchased house—one he could barely afford—we know that he might lose it by the end of the play. The characters repeatedly brush up against the invisible forces of power and money, which ultimately drive many of the story’s conflicts. The production is infused with history, both from playwright Dominique Morisseau’s detailed script as well as director Megan Sandberg-Zakian’s smart musical choices. Aside from the looming crisis, the Detroit of Skeleton Crew suffers from poverty and crime. These elements often creep into the plot, but they never dominate its characters.

When car parts begin disappearing from the plant, suspicion is thrown upon Dez (Jonathan Louis Dent), a smooth-talking young man known to be cocky and careless. Dez gets himself in more trouble after mouthing off to Reggie. When others question him on his impudent behavior, he lays out two paths for himself: following the rules or survival. He tells the story of a friend from another plant, who worked as the factory closed around him. This friend watched as everyone else was laid off until it was clear he’d be the one putting the factory to rest. Yet a few days before closing, he was fired by management and left without severance. The lesson is clear: take what you can, while you have the chance. Dez recognizes that the foreman is a good man, but even he has limited control of the situation.

Dez isn’t the only one with something to lose. Shanita (Toccarra Cash) is an expecting mother who is prepared to turn down a more secure job to stay at the plant. She loves being a highly-skilled worker who makes cars that people rely on every day, that people have affection for, that can keep them safe. Shanita’s fate is also precarious because her child’s father is not in the picture. While she and Dez flirt in the break room they also refer to the anger and violence generated by a dying city, reflected in  a funny story about road rage or Dez’s more serious decision to arm himself each day. For all of its revelations of despair, the break room provides a safe space for a budding romance between this young couple.

The drama’s protagonist is Faye (Patricia R. Floyd), a woman in her late fifties who has been sleeping in the break room because she has become homeless. Faye is the local union rep and a matriarch at the plant, having worked there almost thirty years. The workers rely on her to help make their severance package as secure as possible. This sets up the central conflict of Skeleton Crew: Reggie, her surrogate son, needs her to keep the factory’s upcoming closure a secret.

Parent and Floyd stand out, generating the play’s most emotional moments, poking and prodding the wrinkles that come from a decades-long relationship. A particularly powerful comes when Reggie confronts Faye for staying overnight in the break room. Faye reveals that she’s been driven to homelessness by her own gambling addiction and refuses Reggie’s offer to stay with him. Instead, she takes personal responsibility for her actions. Floyd memorably snaps at him, “If it’s one thing I know how to do… it’s rise the hell up.”

Faye’s strength and personal resolve emphasizes Morisseau’s interest in carrying on the aesthetic and political mission of  August Wilson. The commitment is reflected not only in her dedication to examining the American black experience through the decades (this is her third play set in Detroit), but her interest in the ordinary as well as the remarkable. The Huntington cast imbues the characters’ struggles with admirable dignity; personal conflicts are overcome without sentimentality and in face of crushing external forces. What was a tragedy for many in the economic downturn is redeemed, in Skeleton Crew, by a quietly triumphant conclusion.

David Cruz is a radio producer and civic technologist. He has been an associate producer at Human Media and Programming Director at WYBCX Yale Radio. He currently works for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

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