Regional Reviews: Boston
Also see Sarah's review of Ripe Frenzy
Welcome to Detroit 2008, where the Great Recession has wounded an automobile industry on the verge of bankruptcy. It's the hometown of playwright Dominique Morisseau, whose Skeleton Crew, an emotionally satisfying new play that premiered Off-Broadway in 2016, marks the author's third entry in a cycle of Detroit-based dramas. From the perspective we've gained a decade later, we know the national economy will recover, though slowlyand many blue-collar workers will be left behind as jobs move elsewhere and automation takes over. With so much recent media attention on the white working class, it's easy to overlook the experiences of working-class people of color. As Morisseau explains in an interview in the program, she wants Detroiters to know "there's someone who sees them and recognizes them and loves them enough to scribe them."
It's a pleasure to say that in Skeleton Crew, Morisseau's love and compassion are apparent for her characters, two black men and two black women, hanging on to their jobs at the last plant in town. As they congregate in the break room, loyalties are testedboth to the company and each other. Shanita, unmarried and very pregnant, chooses not to listen to any rumors about closing; the bosses always threaten, but she's a skilled worker in a job she finds meaningful. Everyone knows she's one of the best on the line. Young hotshot Dez, who flirts with Shanita each chance he gets, assures everyone he can create his own opportunities if he's ever let go. Then there's Faye, their union representative, who has one year to go until her full retirement benefits kick in. She's the first to find out from Reggie, the factory foreman, that the plant is closing, and she wrestles with the decision to wait for management's OK to spread the news herself.
Both Faye and Reggie, old family friends, find themselves facing an ethical dilemma: what's best for everyone versus what's necessary to survive? Morisseau smartly doesn't try to make her characters into heroes or villains. Reggie, for one, isn't a corporate sell-out; he's a hardworking man torn between his old crowd working the assembly line and his allegiance to company management. Like many, he has bills to pay and a family to provide for. And Faye, who initially seems like the maternal, nurturing figure in this makeshift work family, has plenty of her own hardships to deal with.
Throughout it all, Morisseau grants these four a space to share their dreams and disappointments, mixing in humor, drama, and even a hint of romance. The potential of violence hovers, but the payoff detours from what we expect. This play is more interested in the internal battles these characters fight to make the right choices, to preserve their dignity even when things feel increasingly hopeless. Sometimes, Morisseau can be too on-the-nose, overemphasizing the thematic points she wants to make. To alleviate a tense moment, Shanita delivers a comic monologue about merging on the highway that leans heavily on its obvious metaphor: we all need to come together. And Faye's character is a little too fond of punctuating conversation with aphorisms like "Love ain't never had no particulars" and "Can't define what a man is before he takes action."
Still, the play's strength comes from these characters learning how to depend on one another. In the Huntington Theatre Company's production, director Megan Sandberg-Zakian lets the emotional honesty of the play come through. Toccarra Cash's Shanita is especially funny as she runs hot and cold on Dez's (Jonathan Louis Dent) advances. As Faye, Patricia R. Floyd seems to be finding her way at first, but she's effective once Faye's choices start to catch up with her. Maurice Emmanuel Parent's Reggie is the most emotionally transparent, finding ways to physicalize the heavy weight that's pushing him down. His fear of what comes next is palpable in his body language, where tears and rage are bubbling just under the surface until he can't take it anymore. The physical production (sets by Wilson Chin, lighting by Adam Honoré, sound by Nathan Leigh) nicely complements the action. As the plant winds down, the factory fans and car parts hanging overheard recede one-by-one into the rafters, unless nothing is left.
"Maybe we just need a whole new city," Shanita says when things turn bleak. Indeed, just last year, U.S. car ownership was on the decline againa sign that the future remains uncertain for this Detroit community. But over the course of this play, these four figure out who they'll stand up for and what they're willing to sacrifice. Fighting against the odds, Skeleton Crew shows us there's still reason to hope.
Skeleton Crew, through March 31, 2018, at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., Boston, MA, 02116. Tickets can be purchased at huntingtontheatre.org or by phone at (617) 266-0800.
Cast: Patricia R. Floyd (Faye); Jonathan Louis Dent (Dez); Toccarra Cash (Shanita); Maurice Emmanuel Parent (Reggie).
Creative Team: Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian; Scenic Design: Wilson Chin; Costume Design: Ari Fulton; Lighting Design: Adam Honoré; Sound Design: Nathan Leigh; Casting: Alaine Alldaffer; Production Stage Manager: Kevin Schlagle; Stage Manager: Alycia Marucci.