Theatre in Review

In Skeleton Crew, playwright Dominique Morisseau hits close to home, presenting an event that still profoundly impacts America: the 2008 economic meltdown. It is captured here in the form of an imminent Detroit car plant closure.

Our memories are still fresh from that time, and wounds to our social fabric not fully healed from a period when millions lost their homes and savings, and we careened to the brink of a global depression, nearly bankrupting U.S. auto makers.

As Skeleton Crew opens, this tumultuous crash is still unfolding and American were living through early phases of what would befall us. At the plant, management has been whittling away at the employee headcount, raising workloads for those remaining, even as rumors abound that this auto body metal stamping plant may close.

The action plays out entirely in the break room, from which massive industrial gantries and cranes are visible overhead. The clamor of the production line permeates the set as we meet Faye, a senior factory veteran and United Auto Workers Union steward (Jacqueline Williams delivers a dynamic performance); Dez, an aspiring young entrepreneur just finding his in life and work (Bernard Gilbert is excellent); and Shanita, an expectant mom who is also model employee. (AnJi White offers a richly textured performance). A supervisor, Reggie (Kelvin Rolston, Jr.) who has risen through the ranks, represents management in the unfolding drama.

I suspect these characters also stand as archetypes, symbolizing familiar types and generational shifts – each carries also a large measure of personal baggage and backstory. We learn that Reggie’s late mom was very close to Faye, and that Faye was like a second mother to him. We see Dez mapping out plans to open a small business – a car repair and restoration shop - but sense the incursions of rising crime and social dissolution. Dez is jumped by two thugs at a convenience store, and with the perspective of today's #BlackLivesMatter sensibilities, see another young black male at risk. Dez begins to carry a gun, and perhaps Morisseau means to foreshadow the tribulation of inner city violence today.   

The more circumspect Shanita represents self-reliance and maturity. Perhaps just a little older than Dez, she fends off his less-than-serious amorous advances, until shifting gears when she becomes pregnant. Faye is the establishment, the UAW go-between to management negotiating secretly with Reggie over how workers will be affected by the shutdown. We learn the circumstances of her personal life are crumbling - as is the auto industry, and perhaps Morisseau is suggesting, social norms.

Morisseau’s earlier installments in her trilogy of plays, Detroit 67 (at Northlight in 2013) and Paradise Blue at Chicago’s Timeline Theatre in July 2017 – also displayed her facility for rich dialog, and an eye for character and dramatic trajectory. All three have been directed by Ron O.J Parsons (formidably well in Paradise Blue and Skeleton Crew; I missed Detroit 67). Parsons is also a frequent interpreter of August Wilson’s dramas at Court Theatre, where he is an artist in residence, and around the country. That is a fit for Morisseau, who says she aspires to give voice to Detroit (she uses the word “griot” for her role here) just as August Wilson was for Pittsburgh in his cycle of plays set there.  

Northlight Theater's high production values have given a fine expression to this show, with Scott Davis (scenic design), Samantha C. Jones (costumes), Keith Parham (lighting), and Ray Nardelli (sound). Rita Vreeland is Production Stage Manager. The show is highly recommended, especially so since you are well advised to watch for revivals of the rest of Morisseau's trilogy. Skeleton Crew runs through March 3 at Northlight's home, the Northshore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.

Published in Theatre in Review



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