After Factory Layoffs, The 'Skeleton Crew' Is Left Behind
Playwright Dominique Morisseau is kind of the unofficial poet laureate of Detroit. She has written three plays about her hometown and her latest, Skeleton Crew, looks at four African-American automobile workers struggling with the economic downturn in 2008. The play is currently running off-Broadway, where it's gotten rave reviews.
Skeleton Crew takes place in a drab break room in a stamping plant — that's where workers manufacture parts for the big three automakers. The factory has laid off a lot of people and the ones who remain — the skeleton crew — are stressed.
In an interview with WNYC earlier this year, Morisseau described these workers as a family. "I'm from Detroit," she said. "I was born and raised there and I wanted to explore three eras in my city's history that I felt were transformative, that changed the landscape of the city. But also, I just wanted to learn more about the people that were living through some of the crises that happened."
So she went home to talk to people about what it felt like to be in Detroit in 2008. The automobile industry was on the verge of going under, and for the workers in Skeleton Crew, it's an earth-shaking moment.
Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson says Morisseau brings audiences into "the world of blue collar life" with a specific kind of empathy. Each employee is different, and yet "they all need each other," he says.
In one scene, one worker tells another, "You've got to make yourself irreplaceable. That's what I'm doing."
But, as Skeleton Crew goes on, all the characters learn just how replaceable they are — the supervisor, who could lose his house; the worker, who might have to take a lower-paying job, right as she's about to have her first baby; the shop steward, who has been making cars for her entire adult life, and is now living in one.
Morisseau wrote the part of the shop steward — Faye — for actress Lynda Gravatt.
"She is as vulnerable as she is strong ..." Gravatt says. "She hasn't quite figured out how to negotiate how life has beaten her or why it has beaten her."
In a way, Skeleton Crew examines how the financial crisis in Detroit — and in the country — creates personal crises. Santiago-Hudson says Morisseau makes those crises feel and sound real.
"Dominique hears the language of her life, of her community," Santiago-Hudson says. "And she not only hears it, she relays it just the way she heard it. It takes a certain amount of courage, because everybody wants to dilute and everybody wants to sanitize. She's not trying to sanitize; she's just trying to let you experience them."
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