Dominique Morisseau is a poet of angst and the burning need for full human expression against forces that want nothing more than to silence individuals and disperse communities.
The Detroit Project is a three-play cycle set in her hometown that celebrates the dogged spirit of The Motor City without romanticizing its struggles. Detroit ’67 premiered first, in 2013, telling the story of the 1967 clash between fed up Black Detroiters and militant federal forces. The cycle’s most recent premiere was 2016’s Paradise Blue, given a haunting production at the Signature Theater by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Set in 1949, its story is the beginning of the end of a Black artistic community, focusing on one tormented genius at the center of the turmoil. In the middle came Skeleton Crew; premiering in 2016 and set in 2008, it too is concerned with trouble that augers greater danger to come, as the life of one automotive factory comes to a close, touching the lives of its many employees and the surrounding community.
In and among these plays, Morisseau shows an abiding concern for the pulsating unity between people and their cultures that give shape, definition, and occasionally meaning to their lives. The expressions of self that her characters seek to establish are at all times intertwined with the institutions they populate, and so the gradual and steady crumbling of those institutions threatens more than jobs and livelihoods: it threatens the very identity of people and their communities.
Remounted on Broadway by the Manhattan Theater Club and again directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the current production of Skelton Crew abounds with life and energy. Set in the breakroom (rendered with gritty grace by Michael Carnahan) of an aging Detroit factory on its last legs, the play focusses on four big personalities as they struggle to manage their shared lives and concerns. Rumors of the factory closing abound, and the play examines the unpredictable and volatile results of that particular injection of tension into these relationships.
At the show’s center is the resplendent Phylicia Rashad, looking and sounding for all the world like a reborn version of her famous Aunt Ester from August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, now a tattered but determined griot of the breakroom. She is Faye, a worker at this factory for 39 years with little concern for silly new rules like no smoking in the breakroom, but abounding care for the people who share the mundanely sacred little breakroom space. And around her force revolves a dynamic and powerful cast. Joshua Boone is the young firebrand Dez, making his way and asserting his dignity working a line at the factory but with his sights set on bigger things. Chanté Adams is Shanita, pregnant and single, but undeterred from showing up at the factory whose song fills her soul. Brandon J. Dirden is Reggie, the former line worker promoted to middle management trying to manage the impossible task of satisfying the higher ups while doing right by the rank-and-file workers.
Confined to the small crucible of the breakroom, these characters discover much about themselves and each other as they consider how to manage the present and what will almost certainly be a very different near future. Santiago-Hudson steers his cast at all times into each other, insisting that they confront and wrestle with the many elephants in this particular room. In this way, the play celebrates the insights and compassion at the heart of Morisseau’s Detroit Project. Hers is a world always at the precipice of worrisome change, and this Skeleton Crew stands confidently enough on that edge to paint vivid pictures of the people and community asserting strength and dignity while being pushed so dangerously close to collapse.