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/
On Friday 16 March The League of Professional Theatre Women held their awards for outstanding accomplishments of women in the theater. With the #metoo movement in full swing and the entertainment industry highlighting the paltry showing of sterling women who have yet to be represented in parity and equity with men, the LPTW shines a special light on the tremendous capabilities of women in the industry. They have been doing this for years beginning with their pioneering efforts championing women in the theatre since their inception in 1984.
The importance of this organization at this time is not to be underestimated. The pernicious nature of male chauvinism, paternalism and the preeminence of patriarchy is deeply entrenched in the folkways of our culture and has risen its ugly head politically, indicating that only lip service had been given to women’s inclusion in the power game. Indeed, men have been dragged along with the arc of progress and justice continues to be flogged by men in power under cover of darkness. Meanwhile, all is smiles and compliments by men for women when the spotlight is on.
Well, women are bending the arc of progress toward their inclusion. It is enough that they are more than half the population, yet have been relegated to the back of the line when the golden rings of power are bestowed by other men. Indeed it is enough!
For years LPTW members identified the under-representation of women in positions of power and importance in the entertainment/theatre industry. And this ironically was not because women demonstrated a lack of creative talent, leadership abilities or phenomenal skill sets. It was because of surreptitious discrimination and a network of mores supported by men AND women wittingly and unwittingly. The concept that “boys will be boys” and women were less than “all that” reigned supreme in the competition for employment. Outstanding women had to push diligently, subtly and prodigiously to get a “place at the table” where men ultimately dominated. Women compromised their behaviors, attitudes, intelligence and creativity to meld into a preeminent male world of directors, playwrights, and design directors and assistants. Because of these pioneers, progress has been moving forward. But we have a long way to go before reaching parity and equity. Thankfully, “the whole world is watching.”
Thus, The League of Professional Theatre Women cannot be praised or recognized enough because they have been at the forefront of supporting women in the theatre world in the US and globally before there was creditable appreciation for womens’ indelible contributions. Over the years their numbers have grown. Their mission has thrived and gained critical mass especially in the current noxious political atmosphere. Now, more than ever their work, their efforts are a beacon to the international theatre community and entertainment industry because their values indicate there are no inconsequential roles, no “little” players. All are integral and vital if live theatre which makes a difference in the minds and hearts of citizens is to continue in its goal to uplift, instruct, unify and promote understanding between and among global communities.
The theatre community receives strength in its diversity of gender, ethnicity, religious beliefs and international participation. As a maverick organization their force and presence are unmistakable. It should be shouted from the rooftops. Thus, it is with gratitude to this organization for what they have accomplished in solidarity over the years that I enumerate the women and the awards the LPTW bestowed last Friday at The TimesCenter.
Florencia Lozano, Host
Florencia Lozano (@ilovelorca) actor, writer and performance artist with a multitude of TV, theatre and film credits is one of the original members of the LAByrinth Theater company and currently serves as LAB’s literary manager. Host of the LPTW Theatre Awards, Florencia Lozano introduced the presenters who then bestowed the awards.
The Lee Reynolds Award, Co-presented by Marshall Jones III & Wayne Maugans to Rohina Malik
The Lee Reynolds Award is given annually to a woman or women active in any aspect of theatre whose work has helped to illuminate the possibilities for social, cultural or political change. Producing Artistic Director of the Crossroads Theatre Company and theatre professor at Rutgers University Marshall Jones III (#MarshallKJonesIII) and Wayne Maugans (@WayneMaugans) the Founding Artistic Director of Voyage Theater Company presented the Lee Reynolds Award to Rohina Malik (@rohina_malik). Her plays have been produced all over the country at various venues, and globally at two South African Theater festivals. She worked with Marshall Jones III and Wayne Maugans with their companies and has formed vital ongoing connections with them continually spurring on new works.
The Ruth Morely Design Award, Presented to Cricket S. Meyers by Shelley Butler
The Ruth Morley Design Award, established in 1998 to honor leading film and theatre costume designer Ruth Morley, is given to an outstanding female theatre designer of costumes, scenery, lighting, sound or special effects. This year’s winner presented by director Shelley Butler (#ShelleyButler) was given to Cricket S. Myers (@sound_myers) for her award winning efforts in Sound Design.
The LPTW Special Award, Presented by Roma Torre to Linda Winer
A LPTW Special Award, presented to a remarkable theatre woman for her service to the League and to her field was given to award winning Linda Winer (#LindaWiner) by NY 1 theater critic, the award winning Roma Torre (@NY1 #RomaTorreNYC). Linda Winer was Chief Theatre Critic for Newsday from 1987-2017 and she has taught critical writing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts since 1992. Both women quipped about the idea that a theater critic might receive an award when in the past, “critics” were looked upon with skepticism and sometimes fear. Certainly, both of these women have provided a wealth of information about productions and have placed them in the historical record revealing the development of theater in this nation.
The Josephine Abady Award, Presented by Karen Kandel to Emily Joy Weiner
The Josephine Abady Award honors the memory of LPTW member Josephine Abady. The award goes to an emerging director, producer or creative director of a work of cultural diversity who has worked in the profession for at least five years. Emily Joy Weiner, Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Houses on the Moon Theater Company received the award presented by award winning Karen Kandel, Co-Artistic Director of NYC based theatre company, Mabou Mines. The Houses on the Moon Theater Company was founded in 2001 with the mission of telling untold stories in the interest of social justice. Emily Joy Weiner has been creating developing, performing, producing and directing new works with the Houses on the Moon Theater Company that address the sensitive issues of our time with community organizations and the talented company of artists.
The LPTW Lucille Lortel Award, Presented by Celia Keenan-Bolger to Adrienne Campbell-Holt
The LPTW Lucille Lortel Award is an award from the Lucille Lortel estate endowment to fund an award and grant. The award is given to “an aspiring woman in any discipline of theatre who exemplifies great creative promise and deserves recognition and encouragement.” This year’s award was presented to director Adrienne Campbell-Holt (@adriennecolt, @Colt_Coeur) by award winning actor Celia Keenan-Bolger (@celiakb). The grant was awarded to Ms. Campbell-Holt’s company, Colt Coeur. Adrienne Campbell-Holt inspired the women in the room with her remarks and encouragement to women playwrights to tell women’s stories. Women, above all are storytellers and she suggested that we must continue to push each other and the culture forward into a new day of acceptance and unity.
The Lifetime Achievement Award, Presented by Jocelyn Bioh to Phylicia Rashad
The Lifetime Achievement Award presented to Phylicia Rashad (#PhyliciaRashad) needs no explanation and the honoree needs no introduction. The award was presented by Jocelyn Bioh (a Ghanaian-American writer/performer from NYC). Jocelyn Bioh (@Jjbioh) has carved a path for herself as an actor on Broadway and Off Broadway. She has appeared in film and TV. Jocelyn Bioh is also a playwright and is working as a staff writer on Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have it.
Phylicia Rashad has appeared in all entertainment venues, TV, Broadway and film. She has made lasting contributions throughout her career with her prodigious body of work. An example of this includes performances on Broadway in August Osage County, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Cymbeline (Lincoln Center Theater), August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean for which she received a Tony Award nomination, A Raisin in the Sun (Tony and Drama Desk Awards), Into the Woods, Dreamgirls, The Wiz.
Off-Broadway she has appeared in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sunday in the Park with George, Head of Passes for which she won a Lucille Lortel Award, The Story, Helen, Everybody’s Ruby, Blue, The House of Bernarda Alba to name a few. She has performed in Regional Theater and has also directed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at the Mark Taper Forum to mention two directorial achievements. She has directed many other productions at numerous venues for example, the Goodman Theatre, the Long Wharf Theatre, the McCarter Theatre, Ebony Repertory Theatre, Kirk Douglas Theatre, Westport Country Playhouse, Seattle Repertory Theatre. And she directed Four Little Girls at the Kennedy Center. She is simply sensational, and as Jocelyn Bioh affirmed, she is “regal,” she is “legendary.”
At the end of the evening a champagne toast heralded to celebrate the award winners and their presenters. Until another year! We’re looking forward to our members’ and exploits in 2018-2019. If you are currently a woman working in the theater globally as an actor, playwright, director, designer, consider viewing the LPTW website to check out their online community. This organization will help you network, meet individuals to spur on your career. Above all it encourages inclusion of women before we even were aware to ask for an “inclusion rider” in our contracts in the entertainment and theater industry. JUST DO IT!!! CLICK HERE FOR THE WEBSITE. Tweet @LPTWomen.