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Broadway Reviews

Skeleton Crew

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - January 26, 2022

Skeleton Crew by Dominique Morisseau. Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Scenic design by Michael Carnahan. Costume design by Emilio Sosa. Lighting design by Rui Rita. Original music and sound design by Rob Kaplowitz. Projection design by Nicholas Hussong. Original music and lyrics by Jimmy Keys aka "J. Keys". Choreography by Adesola Osakalumi. Hair and wig design by Cookie Jordan.
Cast: Chanté Adams, Joshua Boone, Brandon J. Dirden, Adesola Osakalumi, and Phylicia Rashad.
Theater: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue

Joshua Boone and Chanté Adams
Photo by Matthew Murphy
It's one thing to walk away from your job when low pay and poor working conditions are wrecking your life. But what if it's your job that is leaving you, and your future is an unknowable abyss? What then? Do you stick together with your fellow laborers in a show of mutual support, or do you focus on saving your own butt? Solidarity forever or sauve qui peut? That's the individual and collective dilemma faced by the close-knit group of factory workers who gather in the break room of a rumored-to-be-closing Detroit automotive parts plant in Dominique Morisseau's gripping four-character play Skeleton Crew, opening tonight at the Friedman Theatre.

Skeleton Crew, the final installment of a trio of plays Morisseau has written about her home city, may be short on plot, but it is long on the compellingly honest and at times wrenching portrait of the play's Black characters who live from paycheck to paycheck and who are faced with an uncertain future in a city that is being devastated by the loss of its primary industry.

The bubble of life that sustains the characters within the factory is an unheated and utilitarian break room grudgingly provided by management and perfectly captured in its spareness by scenic designer Michael Carnahan: a row of lockers, a table and a few chairs, a battered old couch, a refrigerator, a coffee pot. Translucent windows along a short wall allow in a modicum of sunlight from the street. Through a longer wall of windows, we catch glimpses of the stamping plant, where the workers spend their days on the production line shaping auto parts from hot and heavy sheet metal. It is tedious and dangerous work, but it is also a lifeline for the crew, who at least have steady employment and the backing of the United Auto Workers union.

Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, fresh off the Broadway production of his own autobiographical play Lackawanna Blues, keeps it real by letting the characters' interactions flow naturally from Morisseau's words without ever letting things slide into the potential melodrama of the situation. The rumored (and shrouded in secret by management) closure of the plant, which seems a set-up for an evening of mounting anxiety and tension, is dispensed with fairly early on when it is confirmed to be true; few secrets survive very long in the break room where the characters spend their precious downtime.

Brandon J. Dirden and Phylicia Rashad
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The more experienced members of the quartet are the foreman, Reggie (Brandon J. Dirden), approaching middle age and very much aware of his difficult place in middle management within a white-run operation; and the older member of the crew, the seemingly self-assured tough old bird union rep Faye (Phylicia Rashad). The other two are younger, in their 20s, Dez (Joshua Boone) and Shanita (Chanté Adams). Dez, a bit of a cocky rule breaker, has ambitions for setting up a repair shop of his own. Shanita, who is pregnant and will soon be a single mom, is fixed on making a career out of being a skilled laborer. "You got to make yourself irreplaceable," she says, clinging to the belief that this will allow her to land on her feet despite the upcoming closure.

Skeleton Crew is truly an actor's dream, thanks to beautifully structured dialog that asks them to balance the personal with workplace relationships. This the cast members do with seeming ease. All of the performances and interactions ring true, from Dez's flirty-on-the-outside and jumpy-on-the-inside behavior to Shanita's naïve self-assurance, and from Reggie's worries about doing right by everyone to Faye's determined if regularly tested self-reliance.

If there is one central character, it is Faye (acted with a quiet ferocity by Rashad). She is able to size up everyone at a glance, gruffly but with an underlying sense of compassion. It is also she who sums up the intersection of job and personal lives. "Any moment any one of us could be the other," she says. "That's just the shit about life. One minute you passin' the woman on the freeway holdin' up the 'will work for food' sign. Next minute you sleepin' in your car." It is clear that Faye is not just tossing off a line for effect; she is someone who knows exactly what she is talking about. It is a sad and stunning moment that exposes the underlying fear that haunts all of them.

Through references ranging from the subtle (the hip-hop group Slum Village playing on the radio) to the blatant (Nicholas Hussong's projection design), we are never allowed to forget that this is Detroit, Motown, the Motor City, being forced to its knees. For added thematic emphasis, the play also incorporates between-scenes loud rhythmic clanging sounds and choreographed (by its performer Adesola Osakalumi) robot dance moves that suggest the dehumanizing work environment. Some of these might be overkill, but they serve the purpose of making sure we never forget exactly whose lives are on the line both within the fully functioning factory and following its collapse and dismantling. If you are looking for a play with lots of action or manipulative emotional confrontations, this is not it. Skeleton Crew is a solidly written, directed, and performed story of blue-collar lives caught up in a system that tends to brush them off as interchangeable and insignificant cogs in the wheels of industry.