Encore Michigan

DPT’s ‘Skeleton Crew’ depicts life on the line

Review September 30, 2017 Amy J. Parrent

DETROIT, Mich.–If you’ve never toiled on a production line, and you imagine it as mindless drudgery good only for the reward of a paycheck, then a poetic rhapsody about the job from a twenty-something auto worker in Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew will be an ear-and-eye-opener. The woman is Shanita, and her job gives her a sense of importance. If she steps away from the line without calling for backup, it all falls apart.

And what she’s helping to create is not just a slab of parts on wheels. It’s the future for some family, some person she can see so clearly: A businessman who’ll drive to important meetings in her car, parents and kids on their first trip to Cedar Point, or perhaps someone who’ll have their “first time” in it.

Shanita (Shawntay Dalon) is one of the quartet of plant workers from the recent past, watching as their secure jobs slip away in Detroit Public Theatre’s latest production.

The play, the second of the writer’s Detroit trilogy presented at DPT, is the third of the plays chronologically. (The others are “Paradise Blue” and “Detroit ‘67.”)

The ongoing crushing fear of personal financial failure amongst us lowly proletariat might not offer quite the immediate hook as a show set during the ‘67 riots or among Paradise Valley jazzmen. So, Skeleton Crew is a slower journey toward the reveals and confrontations of mid-and late-play.

But immediately upon entering the intimate theatre space you’re in the world of these workers–a wonderfully realistic, messy break room: old furniture, dishes tossed by the sink, too many appliances competing for one outlet, and a bulletin-board crammed with announcement no one pays heed. Especially not Faye, who gleefully lights up next to the “NO SMOKING FAYE” sign.

Feisty Faye (Ella Joyce) has 29 years with the plant, hoping she can get one more year in because 29 is not 30 when it comes to pension benefits. She’s battled illness–all the more reason for her coworkers trying to thwart that cigarette habit–and much more.

They’re all fond of Faye: Shanita, who’s experiencing all the joys and concerns of a pregnant woman. Dez (Brian Taylor), whose pent-up energy and anger only seems to soften when he’s worrying about Faye or flirting with Shanita. And increasingly frazzled middle-manager Reggie (Brian Marable), who, through his late mother, has a special tie to the older woman.

Reggie, a high-school dropout, is proud to have a job where he wears a tie. But in that awful space between worker and drone bees and the king bees, he struggles to be a good guy, to find the best way out for his soon-to-be laid off friends, without sacrificing his own career in the process.

Through these weeks, with the Layoff Sword dangling over their heads, each of them will learn more about what is at stake for the others. Will the plant close? Will they risk being fired rather than getting a layoff? Who has already lost too much? Who’s going to jump ship? Who might’ve stolen and vandalized the plant?

Ella Joyce completely lives inside and inhabits the tragic Faye. (Although Faye would never want you to think of her as tragic.) Whether shaking her booty dancing around the breakroom alone or wrestling with the dilemma of whether to confide secrets, she is proud, defiant, sassy, defeated, and forward-looking all at once.

Shawntay Dalon brings a radiance to Shanita, who finds bliss in just letting her unborn baby to listen to the everyday sounds of this breakroom but can also rebuke Dez with one sharp look. Brian Taylor works to bring nuance to Dez, a character who could come across as slightly less three-dimensional.

And Brian Marable cooks Reggie just right, bringing this middle-manager to a slow simmer, then increasing the temperature throughout to a roiling boil.

Director Steve H. Broadnax III has guided the foursome into being a believable set of coworkers, friends and near-relations. The excellent design crew deserves all kudos in creating their world, including scenic designer Daniel Robinson (scenic design), Jennifer Maiseloff (props), Jeromy Hopgood (video projection) and Taran Muller Zackrison (costumes). Aaron Tacy’s lighting cues take us in and out of days and moods effectively, and composer/sound designer Curtis Craig’s effects and music alternately energize and subtly underscore the richocheting emotions of these fictional Michiganians.

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Week of 12/2/2019

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