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A CurtainUp Review
Skeleton Crew

Thanks to good reviews and audience response, the company is giving the play a second life at its main stage. This 2nd life will begin 5/13/16, re-open 5/19/16 and close 6/19/16..
. . . I'm walking the line, Faye. One foot in front of the other and trying not to fall and crash and break my spine. And who am I going to lift up when I'm broken? How can I help anyone else if I don't help myself?
— Reggie, responding to his mother's friend and union representative Faye's demand that he use his white collar position to look out for the workers as the factory they work in is headed for its demise.
Skeleton Crew
l-r: Jason Dirden, Wendell B. Franklin, Lynda Gravatt (Photo: Ahron Foster)
This final play in Dominique Morisseau's Detroit trilogy, is set in 2008 when the Motor City had the dubious distinction of placing tops on a Forbes list of America's most miserable cities. The Big Three were hard hit by the recession and the world of well paid auto industry workers overhung with anxiety about a once secure life style.

While the time frame and characters has differed in each of Morisseau's plays all take us to a critical juncture in the city's history through a view of the personal lives of a few Detroit natives. Skeleton Crew's focus is on four African-Americans working for one of the many factories supplying parts to the Big Three and thus caught up in the ripple effect of the deepening recession. The oldest, Faye (Lynda Gravatt), and twenty-something Dez (Jason Dirden) and Shanita (Nikiya Mathis) work on the line; Reggie (Wendell B. Franklin) who's in his 30s, comes from the same blue collar background as the others but is now their white collar foreman.

Ms. Morisseau's storytelling isn't quite up to the poetic grandeur of August Wilson's epic Pittsburgh cycle. However, she has created four vivid, likeable characters and provided them with authentic dialogue and stories. She's blessed to have an excellent ensemble to bring those characters and their inner conflicts and interactions to life and deliver that dialogue with a natural ease. Those blessings are doubled by having Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who also directed her middle play Paradise Blue ( my review), back on board to find a theatrically satisfying way into the social and political points she's making.

Over the course of the well paced two hours we get to see what makes Dez so angry and why the sensitive and very pregnant Shanita actually likes her work. We also learn that the tough but deeply compassionate Faye and and efficient Reggie each have secrets; what's more, they have a long and emotionally potent bond which intensifies the strain of how she as a union representative and he as the worker- management go-between must deal with the probable closing of the plant.

Individualized as these people are, each also represents (perhaps a bit too neatly) a larger point of view. Dez is the fire brand who is ready to survive by striking out on his own and is prepared to meet the violence in the streets in kind. Shakita has signed on to the auto industry work place not just because it pays well, but because she sees what she does as creating ,something useful and not just shuffling papers around as she feels would be the case if she accepted a job at a copying center. For Faye being on the line has been her life work and she sees the UAW as not just an auto workers' union but a civil right. For Reggie the plant has been his chance to rise from poverty and delinquency into a position entitling him to some of the goodies of the American Dream.

The script includes instructions for musical interludes with some sort of shadowed image of workers. Mr. Santiago-Hudson has ingeniously followed that script note to punctuate these interludes with potent theatricality. While the action is confined to these four people and Michael Carnahan's smartly detailed factory's breakroom, the director has cast choreographer Adesola Osakalumi to be a shadowy stand-in for all the workers operating the stamping machinery. Rui Rita's lighting, Robert Kaplowitz's original music and sound as well as songs by Jimmy "J. Keys"Keys intensify the dynamism of Osakalumi's movements seen through the breakroom's window facing the plant's working area.

Given the small cast, every character is important here, though Faye and Reggie are clearly the play's linchpins. That said, the details about what goes on between them and leads to the finale is not spelled out. Something not mentioned at all is that Obama is running for president and it's hard to believe, that even with anxieties about their jobs foremost in these characters minds, it's hard to believe that the prospect of an African-American president would not come up at least once.

A lot has happened since 2008. While Detroit has seen a comeback, it's for just half the city. It would be interesting to see Ms. Morisseu fine tune this trilogy and perhaps use the city of her birth once more to chronicle the ongoing challenges to the American Dream for an ever larger and diverse segment of our populace.

Skeleton Crew by Dominique Morisseau
Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Cast: Jason Dirden (Dez), Wendell B. Franklin (Reggie), Lynda Gravatt (Faye),Nikiya Mathis (Shanita), Adesola Osakalumi (Choreographer/Performer).
Scenic design by Michael Carnahan
Costume design by Paul Tazewell
Lighting design by Rui Rita
Original music and sound design by Rob Kaplowitz
Original songs: Jimmy "J Keys"Keys Stage Manager: Laura Wilson
Running Time: 2 hours and 5 minutes, including intermission
from 1/06/16; opening 1/19/16; closing 2/14/16. Atlantic Stage 2, 330 W 16th St.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 1/14/16 press preview
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