Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Skeleton Crew
Yellow Tree Theatre / New Dawn Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Bob Marley's Three Little Birds and Flight

Jamecia Bennett, Mikell Sapp, and Nadége Matteis
Photo by Justin Cox
The term "skeleton crew" refers to the bare minimum number of personnel needed to do a job, whether the job is operating a ship, a fast food restaurant shift, a hospital emergency room, or stamping out metal components to build automobiles. The latter is the case in Dominique Morisseau's gripping play, aptly titled Skeleton Crew. Not only is the staffing at a Detroit area Ford plant just barely enough to meet company production quotas, but the spirt of those remaining crew-members is being whittled down to their bare bones, squeezed out of them as under pressure to be among the bones left hanging on the skeleton, fearing that any day the entire corpse will be buried.

In recent years, Morisseau's Detroit '67, Sunset Baby, and Pipeline have been given praiseworthy productions by Penumbra Theater. Now, Yellow Tree Theatre and New Dawn Theatre have collaborated to give Skeleton Crew its first upper Midwest production. The result, under Austene Van's clear-eyed direction, is an explosive, impassioned theatrical event that grabs viewers by their emotional collars and holds on tight until the final scene. Performed on the tiny stage at Yellow Tree's theater in Osseo, the play looms large, with a much greater sense of purpose and impact than the modest surroundings would foretell.

1916 was the start of what has been termed "the great migration." From 1916-1970, six million African Americans left rural poverty in the south for the promise of good jobs in the industrial north, midwest and west. The birth of the assembly-line auto industry made Detroit one of the surest bets for secure, well-paid employment. In 1910, 6,000 African Americans lived in Detroit. By 1929 the city had 120,000 African American residents. As long as the auto industry prospered, a solid, African-American community prospered as well. Starting in the 1980s, the American auto industry began to sputter, with plant closings and downsizing haunting the lives of auto plant workers. Skeleton Crew takes place in a plant that made it into the 21st century and past the Great Recession of 2008, but its workers nervously watch as other plants shutter, wondering how long the company will keep them afloat.

At this plant we are in the company of three assembly line workers and their foreman. Faye (Jamecia Bennett) is the unit's union rep. In just one more year she will reach her thirty-year mark, entitling her to retire with good benefits. Faye is hard working, tough as nails, and no one bats an eyelash at her being an open lesbian. Faye has a secret, though, that she works mightily to conceal, as a matter of both her security and her pride.

Dez (Mikell Sapp) is a young man who sees the decay in the industry and doesn't plan to wait around for it to take him out—he is saving up to open an auto repair shop. Tightly wound, Dez can't sit still, has no patience for protocol, and takes measures to protect himself from the dangers all around. The one person who calms Dez is Shanita (Nadége Matteis), whose optimism flies in the face of what is going on in the industry, let alone on her own factory floor. Shanita puts in more than 100 percent, follows all the rules to a T, and is proud of being part of a team that builds automobiles. She is unmarried and pregnant, but confident the plant will enable her to give her baby a good life.

Reggie (Darius Dotch) got his start at the plant with help from Faye and has been promoted to foreman. He is uncomfortably on the management side of an invisible line that separates him from his own origins. He has a wife and two children to think about, but also the people on the floor, like Faye, Dez and Shanita, who give their sweat to the company day after day.

From the play's first scene through two acts we know there will be trouble for these characters and the larger workforce they represent. It is a measure of Morisseau's expert playwrighting that the ways in which trouble arrives and plays out are both believable and unpredictable, keeping us on edge throughout. She has created four characters who all have differing types and degrees of flaws, but are all undeniably likeable. Their conversations are thoroughly authentic, their mannerisms lovably human. There is nothing wrong with any of these people to trigger the trouble that rises to their feet. It is a system never intended to in which all they can do is try their best to stay afloat.

Van draws remarkable performances from her quartet of actors, who bring their characters blazingly to life. Bennet's Faye is at the center of the storm. As union rep, she is meant to be a conduit between management, represented by Reggie, and the other workers. Bennet conveys the strife in which she finds herself, with sympathy for Reggie dating back to their pasts, concern for the future of the young people banking on the company, and genuine anxiety about making it to her 30th anniversary payday. Bennet's Faye hollers, and cajoles, falls apart, and puts herself back together without ever a false note.

Dotch conveys both the pride and earnest compassion that wrack Reggie's soul. Sapp brings out the comic sensibility of Dez's character—his grace before lunch is priceless), the charm with which he tries to win Shanita's attention, and the stew of insecurities and anger that are his primary driver. A New Yorker making her Twin Cities debut, Nadége Matteis is a joy to watch, as she fills in the heartfelt details of Shanita's simple aim to stay true to her course. As her feelings for Dez grow, Matteis shows Shanita to be a more complex character than first meets the eye.

Nicole DelPizzo has created a thoroughly lived-in factory break room, with the typical plethora of work rules and announcements tacked to bulletin boards, a soiled coffee station, and modest furnishings. Samantha Fromm Haddow's costumes capture the look of blue-collar America. Courtney Schmitz' lighting affords the break room the glare of a space not meant for workers to linger unduly, while she illuminates panels used between scenes to display the assembly line in pantomime, attesting to the repetitive, physically demanding nature of the work, and the absolute necessity of workers acting in sync with one another.

The conclusion of Skeleton Crew has the fate of one character resolved. For the others, we can't be sure. Knowing how vulnerable are the lives of people working in what was once a fully secure industry, the pride of Yankee ingenuity and industriousness, we are left hanging, hoping for the best, fearing the worst. Whether by design or not, Morisseau has devised Skeleton Key as a platform for considering the effect of pubic policy, of office holders, and information/misinformation dispersed by the media. These very real flesh and blood characters, whom we have come to care about in the course of two acts, are exactly the people whose lives hang in the balance.

Skeleton Key is exceptionally well realized theater that triggers feelings and prompts questions. This production shows the superior work being done by Yellow Tree, now in its ninth season and quietly gathering steam as one of our most reliably excellent theater companies, and by New Dawn, a new company already making good on its promise to illuminate and support cutting edge works of overlooked and under-represented communities in our theatrical landscape.

Skeleton Crew, a Yellow Tree Theatre / New Dawn Theatre co-production, runs through March 1, 2020, at at Yellow Tree Theatre, 320 5th Ave SE, Osseo MN. Tickets: $26.00 - $30.00; $10.00 rush tickets starting 30 minutes before each performance, pending availability; $3.00 per ticket discount for seniors (65+) and students with valid ID. Arts for All Program offers $5.00 tickets for patrons with financial barriers—call for information. For information and tickets call 763-493-8733 or visit

Playwright: Dominique Morisseau; Director: Austene Van; Set Design: Nicole DelPizzo; Costume Design: Samantha Fromm Haddow; Lighting Design: Courtney Schmitz; Sound Design: Jeff Bailey; Prop Design: Josie Everett; Technical Director: Matthew A. Gilbertson; Stage Manager: Brianna Regan.

Cast: Jamecia Bennett (Faye), Darius Dotch (Reggie), Nadége Matteis (Shanita), Mikell Sapp (Dez).