- Courtesy Of Joey Moro
- From left: Leland Fowler, Gabriel Lawrence, Brenda Pressley and Mirirai Sithole
In Detroit at the height of the 2008 recession, there might be no one more powerless than the automobile assembly-line worker. In Dominique Morisseau's Skeleton Crew, four African American workers have heard rumors their plant is closing. Their future is unknown, but economic uncertainty is always a given.
This isn't a story of larger-than-life conflict but of the everyday strength of working-class blacks. In Dorset Theatre Festival's production, a captivating ensemble cast portrays the hope that flickers in hard times.
The setting is the auto plant's employee break room, with its cast-off chairs, bulletin board and makeshift kitchen. A sense of urgency settles over the four characters, even though their talk is of simple things. Faye has got to stop smoking in the break room; Shanita wants to know who used her salad dressing; Dez is probably dreaming when he imagines saving enough to open an auto repair shop.
These topics seem light, but contrasted with the likely plant closing, they become the last glimpses of security. And what is each character really deciding? Whether to break a rule. Whether to act for themselves or for the company — or for each other.
Director Jade King Carroll adds a sense of dance and movement to the characters' daily rituals and keeps the tension at a quiet boil by drawing out performances that show the smallest choices are about survival. Faye, the 29-year veteran and union rep, can't protect her coworkers from layoffs. Dez, the volatile tough guy, knows his strength is nothing to the company's power over him. Shanita, the hard worker, can't count on good performance to keep her job. And Reggie, their supervisor, is torn between backing the boss and supporting his peers.
From moment to moment, the break room is a haven or a setting for confrontation. Shanita is far along in pregnancy, and the father is far out of the picture. Dez flirts with her, and she shuts him down with such grace that their relationship is stronger for it. Reggie confides in Faye about the plant's future, making her a hostage of his secrets. Dez and Reggie bristle, refusing to trust each other. The exchanges seem commonplace, but Morisseau makes the texture of everyday life convey the choices that forge identity.
Morisseau is a playwright on the rise, widely produced at regional theaters. Skeleton Crew is part of her three-play Detroit Project, structurally reminiscent of August Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle. Morisseau acknowledges Wilson's influence, saying she sought to create characters that would make people from her hometown of Detroit feel visible.
Her command of dialect lends a bright tang of realism to the depiction of characters whose lives are ordinary and who are worth watching because of it. The play is built of short scenes with a tilt toward brief monologues that reveal each character's struggles. Outside the break room is the formless adversity of a failing economy; inside, the conversation is naturalistic with the particular poetry of honest expression.
Leland Fowler gives Dez street smarts plus the capacity to dream. With his Tigers ball cap turned backward and a lanky ease of movement, Dez flirts with Shanita as if a steady drip of smooth will one day turn the tide. He's ready to tussle with Reggie over anything. When Reggie treats him with suspicion, Dez is reduced to a noble stillness that defines the pain of not being trusted.
As Shanita, Mirirai Sithole is small but unmistakably mighty, her hard hat settled above a purposeful face. She loves her work. When she banters with Dez, Sithole keeps Shanita light enough not to crush him, and firm enough to protect herself and her unborn child. She has the courage to carve out space for hope and the wisdom to stay pragmatic.
Brenda Pressley portrays Faye as a survivor who has nearly run out of ways to carry on but will fight to the end. Alone in the break room, she does a fierce and funny little dance to Aretha Franklin's "Respect" that proves the song is still a rallying cry. She's the group's conscience but is carrying a private sense of shame.
As Reggie, Gabriel Lawrence turns his strong physique into a clenched ball. When Reggie is pulled in opposite directions, Lawrence gives him the gestures of a boxer starting a punch but hauling it back in. In taut scenes with Dez and Faye, Reggie's frustrations seem about to spill over, but he tamps them back down again and again. Reggie can't satisfy both labor and management; Lawrence shows that failure means he can't satisfy himself.
Scenic designer Kristen Robinson and lighting designer Michael Giannitti have created a worn-out break room that immediately signals the play's realism and hints at its fatalism. The concrete-block walls aren't just cold and utilitarian; they carry the grime of hands that have worked in this plant for decades.
Giannitti is fearless about incorporating fluorescent fixtures in a light plot that makes even sunlight bleak when it signals the start of the workday through grimy windows. Robinson fills the space with storytelling touches, including an Obama campaign sticker on Shanita's locker, the only reference to the politics outside the room.
Joey Moro's projections between the scenes stylize both the images and the motion of an assembly line. Alice Tavener's costume design gets the wardrobe right but doesn't convey the age and wear of the clothes.
The characters are rubbed raw by uncertainty, without defenses. Holding on to hope is nearly impossible for people with so little control of their economic lives. Morisseau never veers toward pathos and won't use sensational events to tell a story that's rooted in ordinary life. Shanita, Dez, Faye and Reggie are strong people whose integrity is tested, but they aren't to be pitied. They're to be seen, and heard.