Dominique Morriseau Excavates the Glory of Blackness in ‘Skeleton Crew’
As Black folks like to say, when Dominique Morisseau wrote Skeleton Crew, she put her whole foot in it. For those who aren’t in the know, that means the play is a spectacular blend of lyrical language, political analysis, and delightful humor that prioritizes Black lives and sensibilities over respectability politics.
The play follows three generations of strivers toiling for their daily bread at an automobile plant. Faye (Phylicia Rashad) is one of those legendary workers who’s been around for about as long as the plant itself. Under her guidance, and despite his lack of a college education, Reggie (Brandon J. Dirden) has prospered into an overseer at the plant.
Though Faye is the factory’s union representative, Reggie confides in her that the factory will shut down before the year is out. Rather than inform her younger colleagues, a very pregnant Shanita (Chanté Adams) and Dez (Joshua Boone), she agrees to keep silent so that Reggie can work out the best deal for everyone involved without facing angry workers and a potential strike. As a Black man who has been given a modicum of power, he is expected to lord it over his subordinates, much like an overseer in a cotton field; but even when they pick at him, Reggie loves his people and resists the corrosive demands of this modern-day slave system.
Even without rumors that closure and lay-offs are imminent, the entire crew is already under stress for various reasons―Dez carries a gun after being attacked on the way to work; Faye is homeless and has taken to sleeping overnight, secretly, in the break room. Reggie has recently bought a home for his family and knows that if he doesn’t handle the closing right, he’ll damn his colleagues and lose out on a transfer. On top of that, they are all under suspicion of stealing expensive materials from the company.
Though there is much that ails these dreamers, Morisseau has equipped each character with a full backstory and dispersed witty exchanges throughout the moments of tension so that audiences never lose sight of the fact they are watching someone’s daughter, son, husband, or potential lover.
This is particularly true for Faye, whom Rashad has imbued with a feisty verve for having it her own way, even when that means going against what others expect of her. Dirden, as Reggie, is her equal. He is harried and fraying at the edges due to dueling mandates; keeping the books balanced even as his subordinates undermine him and resisting the urge to strangle his bosses who refuse to see his colleagues as people. It would have been easy for Morisseau to paint Reggie as a sell-out who forgets where he came from. Thankfully, she and Dirden are interested in telling a story of how we deal with our worst impulses and selfish desires in a time of famine.
As Dez, Boone balances these two perspectives out beautifully as a young dreamer on the verge of finally bringing his plans to life. Boone gives Dez a cocky swagger, but takes care to balance out the character’s obnoxious tantrums with moments of calm that reveal the suffering he has endured and a sweetness that belies his seen-it-all poses. This is never clearer than during a pivotal moment when Dez reveals his painful past to Shanita. Rather than lash out across the stage, Boone draws us in with a simple moment of stillness, allowing us to see him at his most vulnerable. Shanita’s dramatic arc is much less revolutionary than those around her, but Adams gives her all in what could have been the sweet ingenue role, managing the almost impossible trick of redeeming Dez in our eyes.
Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson takes his time developing the action. I wanted the pace to pick up during the first act until I realized that the second act needed a steady setup―because once the last half begins, it’s a dash to the finish. Usually, second acts pale in comparison to their first because playwrights don’t know how to end things. Morriseau knows exactly what she wants and achieves it beautifully with Santiago-Hudson. The production elements are equally wonderful, my sole quibble with Skeleton Crew is that it doesn’t do more with dancer/choreographer Adesola Osakalumi. His work has often reduced me to tears; here it left me wanting for more.
Through this deep dive into how Detroit’s collapsing factory industry affected generations of Black people, Morisseau has given generations of Black people the same consideration for their flaws and glory that was once reserved for August Wilson’s work. She’s also left the door open so that white audiences can grasp an honest view of what Black people talk about when white folks aren’t around, making Skeleton Crew a must-see.
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