Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Skeleton Crew
Guthrie Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of The Spitfire Grill, Sea Cabinet, Blended Harmony: The Kim Loo Sisters, Flex, and Torch Song

Stephanie Everett and Mikell Sapp
Photo by Dan Norman
One of the first shows I saw and reviewed at the start of 2020 was Skeleton Crew, directed by Austene Van at Yellow Tree Theatre. The play was new to me then, but having seen several other of Dominique Morisseau's plays–Detroit '67, Sunset Baby, and Pipeline, I was not surprised to encounter another taut, smartly plotted play with compelling insights into the intersection of society, economy, and recent history in urban Black communities. I praised the play, Van's direction, and the cast. From the moment it began, Skeleton Crew caught my attention, and never let it go. Skeleton Crew is back, this time on the much larger McGuire Proscenium Stage at the Guthrie Theater, again directed by Van, with two cast members from the 2020 production returning as well. The play, the direction, and the cast are once again outstanding and fully deserving of your attention.

Shortly after that production in Winter 2020, the world shut down for a long, isolating pandemic. The resulting change in how we pursue entertainment, from in-person to streamed-at-home performances, along with tight dollars, has slowed the return of audiences to live theatre. Theatre workers (actors, designers, stage crews, front of house staff–never the most secure of occupations) sometimes find themselves in the same position of Skeleton Crew's auto plant workers: jittery about whether theirs will be the next company to reduce or totally shut down production.

Skeleton Crew, meanwhile, had its profile elevated with a Broadway production early in 2022, which led to a Tony nomination for Best New Play and a Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role Tony Award win for Phylicia Rashad (though anyone would be hard pressed to convince me that her role, Faye, is not the lead).

The play takes place in the break room of a Detroit auto manufacturer, with scenes before and after the workday, and during work breaks. The year is 2008, with America sucker-punched by the great recession. The auto industry is one of many that are flailing, and plant closings and layoffs are common occurrences. Workers at this plant are understandably edgy as rumors float that theirs will be next to close. Skeleton Crew's four characters, all Black, each represent a different perspective on future prospects for the multitude of plant employees whose lives hang in the balance.

Faye (Jennifer Fouché) is the long-timer of the group, with twenty-nine years under her belt. One more and she'll be eligible for a much richer retirement plan than if she hangs it up now. She's a tough, outspoken bird, but with a charismatic presence, making her ideal for her role as union rep. While Faye is also an out lesbian who doesn't let quips about that ruffle her feathers, she does have a secret which she closely guards. Reggie (Darius Dotch), who is closing in on middle age, had a family connection with Faye, and she helped him get his job at the plant. He has worked his way up to management, allowing him to buy a house with a yard for himself, his wife, and two kids. He can't quite believe where he has landed, and he still empathizes with those back on the floor–but now his paycheck require that he take the bosses' side, which, like it or not, puts him at odds with former compatriots.

We also meet two younger plant workers. Dez (Mikell Sapp) has little faith that the system cares a wit about him, assumes that as a young Black man he will always be under suspicion whenever there is trouble, and whose exit plan is to save up enough money to open his own auto shop. Still, Dez is a good worker, and can be quite charming and solicitous, especially when it comes to Shanita. Shanita (Stephanie Everett) is single and pregnant. The father of her child is not in the picture, but she's confident of being able to raise a child on her own because of her job's good pay and benefits. Shanita follows all the rules, never complains, takes overtime–she intends to make her home there and takes pride in being part of an enterprise that produces something people value. She rebuffs Dez's flirtatious attentions, though clearly she doesn't totally hate them–or him.

Of course, there are many variations of how workers at the plant view their lives, but these four provide a nice cross section–old hands versus new blood; cynical versus idealistic; labor suspicious of management at odds with management tasked to keep labor in line; male and female. However, Morisseau in no way draws her characters as "types." Each is a distinctive individual with their own history, their own language patterns, and their own response to the cards that lay before them. Van's direction further assures that we are in the company of four intriguing people with their own stories. The staging is well paced, perceptively allowing for silences and pauses where those would naturally occur, and moving the dialogue and action swiftly when the plot is in motion.

Both Dotch and Sapp, as Reggie and Dez, respectively, were in Yellow Tree's 2000 production. They were terrific then and are equally excellent in this remount. Each capture the cadence of their character's speech, the way in which they use language as a reflection of their place in the world, and the hold the company has on their life. Dotch is persuasive in making the case that his situation is just as precarious as that of the workers on the floor. Dez is a more physically active character, and Sapp infuses him with the buzz of nervous energy. Everett is a strong addition to the cast as Shanita, exuding the character's determined self-reliance and optimism, her emotions working overtime to avoid considering that any aspect of her plans might not hold up.

A New York-based actor, Fouché has the plum role of Faye. Actually, Fouché is originally from Detroit, so she may have come to the role with native instincts. She pours tremendous energy into her interpretation of the character, investing Faye with world-weariness and gravitas, along with a bristly good humor that is part of her survival kit. Faye knows what she can get away with (smoking, even though a sign on the bulletin board says, in large print "No Smoking, FAYE") and what she cannot. She makes a stirring impression, though at times imbues her character with what may be too much gravitas, ending lines with an emphasis that feels like she is intentionally focused on expressing deep feelings, rather than having a natural conversation.

The physical production is a marvel. The factory break room designed by Regina Garcia captures the worn-down feel of such spaces, a place where workers can rest and refresh, though not comfortable enough for them to want to stay too long. Samantha Fromm Haddow's costumes capture each of the character's respective positions and temperaments. Nic Vincent's lighting bathes the room in harsh industrial lights, softened by a dusky glow seeping through oil-stained windows between the break room and the factory floor. Jeff Lowe Bailey's sound design allows the ambient noise of the factory to sift in, and provides evocative electronic music during scene transitions.

Those scene transitions are a significant feature of the play. Using enlarged shadow images cast by the actors from behind the translucent windows, these convey the dehumanizing mechanization of the human body as it becomes trapped by the rhythms of industrialization. The images invoke a feeling of drudgery, although from Shanita's perspective, being part of that machine and contributing to its productivity is gratifying, so who's to say? Pay close attention to the final tableaus to see what, in the course of the play and interactions between Reggie, Dez, Faye, and Shanita, is different.

I miss the intimacy of Yellow Tree's stage, which allowed the audience to feel as if we were seated in the break room, rather than viewing it on a raised stage, beneath a proscenium arch. Of course, it is a welcome trade off to give many more theatregoers the opportunity to see Skeleton Crew, and the larger venue does nothing to diminish the play's or its production's quality. Dominique Morisseau writes plays in which communities and points of personal crisis intersect, in the tradition of Arthur Miller and August Wilson. I recommend the Guthrie's production of Skeleton Crew without reservation.

Skeleton Crew runs through June 9, 2024, at the Guthrie Theater, McGuire Proscenium Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please call 612-377-2224 or visit

Playwright: Dominique Morisseau; Director: Austene Van; Scenic Design: Regina Garcia; Costume Design: Samantha Fromm Haddow; Lighting Design: Nic Vincent; Sound Design/Composer: Jeff Lowe Bailey; Dramaturg: Faye M. Price; Fight Director/Intimacy: Annie Enneking; Movement Director: Austene Van; Vocal Coach: Keely Wolter; Resident Casting Director: Jennifer Liestman; NYC Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.; Assistant Director: Brandon Raghu; Stage Manager: Laura Topham; Assistant Stage Manager: Kathryn Sam Houkom.

Cast: Darius Dotch (Reggie), Stephanie Everett (Shanita), Jennifer Fouché (Faye), Mikell Sapp (Dez).