Phylicia Rashad, Brandon J. Dirden in ‘Skeleton Crew,’ Workers vs. Corporates, a Worthy Fight at Manhattan Theatre Club
From the symbolic and representative opening salvos of gyrating piston Adesola Osakalumi, whose break dancing suggests the automation which is rendering the human scaling at the auto-stamping factory obsolete, to the well-hewn set by Michael Carnahan (the dusty, run-down, cold, shabby staff room where employees enjoy down-time) we understand that the four person skeleton crew in the Detroit plant will be ghosted as soon as budgetary financial reckonings are made by upper management. This is 2008 Detroit, US during the economic mortgage mess when investment bank Bear Stearns collapses and is bought over by JPMorgan Chase and Lehman’s a 150-year old booming institution goes belly up. People are losing their homes and living in their cars and cheesy motels in Florida. And, it is worse in Detroit whose booming success of the 1960s is a bust by the 1990s and there’s one plant left that is barely churning out product.
Skeleton Crew directed by the superb Tony Award® winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson, currently in revival at Manhattan Theatre Club after its intimate presentation Off Broadway at the Atlantic six years ago, hints at the tour de force Dominique Morisseau meant the last segment of her Detroit Project to be. The trilogy (The Detroit Project) is about Detroit’s life and times before and after the Reagan outsourcing debacle toppled the city from its glory as the country’s industrial fountain of youth. It includes Detroit-’67, Paradise Blue and Skeleton Crew.
The play has been given a glossy uplift using video projections of the robotic machinery of the assembly line etc. (excellent design by Nicholas Hussong). Coupled with the music (Rob Kaplowitz’s original music & sound design, and Jimmy Keys’ original music & lyrics) at the beginning and between salient scenes, we note the encroaching modernized doom that hammers the employee work force into unrecognizable bits, hyper-downsized from its greatness when Detroit was in its manufacturing heyday. The digital video projections supplant proscenium curtains which would normally frame the stage. As such, the plant’s relentless, driving automation is the outer frame of the stage and encapsulates the action and interactions in the staff room where workers take their breaks from the repetitive and monotonous production line.
The contrast Morisseau’s dualism creates is trenchantly thematic. The defined “wasted, decrepit humans” are pitted against inevitable “progress” which especially grinds down the people whose loyalty and dedication to the industry have been turned against them. These management diminished unfortunates, like Faye (Tony Award® winner Phylicia Rashad) whose once magnificent efforts are discounted as “unprofitable,” didn’t see the “handwriting on the wall” to prepare for another career after working for the company 29 years in the hope of getting a “great” retirement package. Faye and others trusted the corporates to have their best interests and welfare at heart.
As Morisseau indicates in her characterization of Faye, stand-up employees projected their worthiness, values and integrity on their slimy directors and CEOs, mistakenly assuming they would be rewarded for hard work and effort. Ironically, it is the elite corporates who are the unworthy, lazy, greedy, un-Americans who made America “un-great” through Reagan’s tax laws that allowed them to outsource profits by closing plants and establishing factories anywhere but the United States.
In view of the current debacle with supply chain issues, inflation and absence or overpricing of medical product needed to fight the ongoing health disaster (COVID-2022) which incompetent, do-nothing Republicans have fueled as a political stratagem, Skeleton Crew‘s themes are profound and incredibly current. The problems fourteen years later from the setting (2008, Detroit) are even worse with expanding economic inequality, oppression of the workforce, whether white or blue-collar, by oligarchic elites herding the intellectually infirm white supremacists with misdirection against the democratic institutions that could save them. The seeds of the current destructive forces are evidenced in Morisseau’s setting with the ghosting of Detroit’s last automotive plant where supervisor Reggie (the wonderful Brandon J. Dirden) Union Representative Faye (Phylicia Rashad) the energetic Dez (Joshua Boone) and the pregnant Shanita (the excellent Chanté Adams) work and stress out with each other in unity.
Within this framework we follow the devolution and evolution of these four who signify Morisseau’s special individuals who are the backbone of the nation. It is these who the elites would erase. Their ability to hope and thrive is sorely tested against the annihilating backdrop of demeaning corporate abuse which demands personal strength and communal support to over-leap it. With Morisseau it’s the people vs. “the corporate machine,” and as Morisseau spins the conflicts caused by the plant closure, personal self-destruction or revitalization are the direction for Faye, Dez, Shanita and Reggie, who prove to be likeable working class heroes with huge cracks and flaws that we recognize in ourselves.
Reggie who has been practically raised by Faye as family-she got him the position where he rose to management-is pressured and strained. He’s forced to walk a fine line, knowing what his bosses plan to do. Yet he must not tip their hand which would panic the workforce to strike or leave before the current contracted work is completed. Oppressed to enforce nit-picking rules, Reggie argues with Dez who may or may not be stealing and who sees him as a cold-hearted puppet of corporate.
Likewise Reggie emotionally wrestles with Faye who must protect her union workers and herself deciding whether to retire early, which would mean an income loss after retirement. Shanita is pressured emotionally after she is dumped by her baby’s father. She faces being the sole support of her child. She enjoys working at the plant, though she’s a cog in the wheel, but she feels proud for her contribution to making product. Nevertheless, she is strained working and bearing up with her pregnancy, making doctor’s appointments and saving up money before and after she takes time off from the job she loves.
Morisseau excavates each of their struggles with authentic dialogue that is at times humorous, and powerful/poetic as the characters present their positions. Importantly, the playwright extends the reality of what it is to hold a decent job with benefits that is being pulled out from under the worker because the owners’ obscene profits aren’t big enough and government isn’t holding them to account. Thus, as the play progresses and we understand each of the characters’ dreams, we credit Dez for attempting to start his own business with friends, and we hope for Shanita’s child, in light of the nightmares she’s having over the uncertainty of her future. Additionally, we understand Reggie’s position though we expect him to stop his haranguing of the others and stand up to his bosses. We are thrilled when he finally does.
Interestingly, Faye, who appears to be the most solid and reliable is confronting her own devastation in addition to the cancer remission she is going through. Morisseau gradually unfolds each of the characters’ issues and at the end of Act I brings Dez and Reggie’s relationship to a turning point where Dez is about to be fired. When Faye steps in and counsels Reggie to stand up for Dez and the other workers, we question whether Reggie has the guts to or whether he will be a sell-out. The irony is Faye is great at negotiating and encouraging others, but she is lousy at taking care of herself. The revelation of this is poignant, and Morisseau opts to make every audience member put themselves in Faye’s shoes as she, too, “walks the line” between wanting to live or just throw in the towel and give up.
This is a strong ensemble piece and the acting is finely wrought. Unfortunately, some of the humor was lost on me because the actors weren’t always projecting in the cavernous space of the theater. Please actors, project and enunciate! Nevertheless, the passion and presence of Phylicia Rashad along with her counterpoint Brandon J. Dirden was heartfelt. The relationship they create reveals bonds that run deep into love and sacrifice. And the surprising relationship that blossoms between Boone’s Dez and Adams Shanita is beautifully effected by their graded, nuanced performances.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson understands Morisseau’s themes down to his soul’s bone marrow. The play’s visual elements represent the most vital of her themes and the characters are ourselves. We cannot help but be concerned for the conflicts the play presents which seem everpresent and unchanging. The current administration’s hope to “Build Back Better” during this time would appear to rectify the external circumstances of such characters who jump off the stage at us and populate our society. But the same corporate structure that Reggie fights is so entrenched, that soul progress is for the little people, these who are Morisseau’s besties. Perhaps that is the consolation. As for the corporate elites? As Reggie and Dez intimate, they are they’re own soul destruction. And that too is its own tragic consolation.
Kudos to the technical team mentioned above and Emilio Sosa’s costume design, Rui Rita’s lighting design, Adesola Osakalumi’s choreography and Cookie Jordan’s hair and wig design.
Morisseau’s play is dynamite in the hands of Hudson the artistic/technical team and these superb actors. This is a must-see. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/shows/2021-22-season/skeleton-crew/
Posted on February 13, 2022, in Broadway, NYC Theater Reviews, Theater News, NYC and tagged Brandon J. Dirden, Chanté Adams, Joshua Boone, Manhattan Theatre Club, Phylicia Rashad, Skeleton Crew. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.