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'Skeleton Crew' is a Powerful, Personal Tale of American Labor

The superb cast brings The Old Globe’s fascinating story of a 2008 Detroit auto plant to life


Amari Cheatom and Tonye Patano in Skeleton Crew. | Photo: Jim Cox

Nobody who’s had to suffer them disputes that most blue-collar work comes with a slew of dehumanizing measures that seem reasonable only for how they affect line items on a P&L sheet: underscheduling, breaktime policing, random property searches. If you’re lucky, you can offset these humiliations somewhat by finding pride in your work, but in my experience, usually what keeps the long hours and patronizing atmosphere of most service or labor jobs bearable is solidarity with one’s coworkers.

The auto plant workers in Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew have been finding ways to cope with worsening conditions for a long time. It’s 2008 in Detroit, and rumors abound that the plant faces closure, a contingency Shanita (Rachel Nicks) has given little thought to. She won’t consider taking a more sterile, sedate copy shop job when the opportunity avails itself, in part because she finds such satisfaction in the “music” of the assembly line and the skill she’s honed at her daily routine—even if that routine includes rebuffing the (mostly perfunctory) advances of Dez (Amari Cheatom).

Unlike Shanita, Dez sees the writing on the wall and is determined to have an escape plan; he’s shoring up a side gig and shows no concern when a string of apparent thefts hit the factory: If the ship is sinking anyway, he figures, the rats would be smart to help themselves to the silverware on their way out. When pressed, of course, he hedges on whether this is empty bluster, which only further centers him in the crosshairs of their foreman, Reggie (Brian Marable).

Amari Cheatom, Brian Marable, Tonye Patano, and Rachel Nicks | Photo: Jim Cox.

Reggie is a walking bundle of nerves whose posture rarely departs a hunched capital I, a middle manager under constant pressure from both above and below whose campaign to clamp down on rule violations—smoking, gambling—is just more sport for his workers to play around. The fact that he grew up in the same neighborhood as them helps his credibility only to a point, before metastasizing into impostor syndrome something fierce. He wants to do best by them even as they undermine him and question his legitimacy.

The glue binding this dysfunctional family together is Faye (Tonye Patano), who’s just a few months away from a full pension after 29 years on the job. Nominally the union rep, in 2008 this seems mostly a power held in reserve. She’s the keeper of all the plant’s secrets, and enjoys a cozy relationship with Reggie that allows for more nuanced influence—not least because she knew his family since he was in diapers—and though she can still conjure the threat of mass walkout and strike, we know as well as her that she too is stuck in the middle, fending off complaints from both sides.

This play exemplifies, for me at least, the most effective kind of dramatic writing: Although it’s undoubtedly concerned with several big concepts—the vulnerability of the working class, the decline of American manufacturing, and the misunderstood survival strategies particular to black communities among them—relatively few “big things” happen. There are no monologues to spoon-feed us our morals. Instead, having created complex, human characters, Morrisseau needs only mix them together in a volatile environment, and the chemical reactions that naturally ensue, though limited in consequence to their individual lives, implicitly speak volumes about their societal context.

When you’ve written something this good, you’ve earned the right to get a little carried away in spots.

The only moments that spoil this verisimilitude occur when Sanita stops the action to describe her symbolic dreams, accompanied by a trancelike musical cue. They are affecting poetic nuggets, though, so while on the one hand they feel out of place—“actorly”—when you’ve written something this good, you’ve earned the right to get a little carried away in spots.

I’ve seen three shows directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg this year (the others were Blue Door and Sex with Strangers), and this is her best work so far. Seeing these characters bounce and spark off one another is riveting. An unexpected second-act reversal that could read contrived on the page is handled with the perfect amount of poise. During the play’s emotional climax, Patano delivers a single line with such superhuman restraint that she gathers a typhoon of heartbreak into the delivery of a mere half dozen words.

A superb cast, led by a director at the top of her game, bring this fascinating and vital story to life. At a time when politicians are only too happy to lament the noble endangered factory worker for their own purposes, we need more stories like this to cut through cultural myths for a complicated ground-level view, backed by the authority of an entire cast and creative team of color.

Skeleton Crew
The Old Globe
in association with Moxie Theatre
April 8–May 7, 2017

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