Recession Presages a “Skeleton Crew” at Detroit Public

By Daniel Skora

Crew-1It’s a tough job working in a Detroit auto plant. The work is arduous, the noise assailing, and the line a relentless parade of mind-numbing monotony. But it pays the bills, sometimes just barely, and it’s certainly better than the alternative, which is no job at all.

Detroit Public Theatre is presenting “Skeleton Crew”, the third installment of playwright Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit Project trilogy. The time is 2008, and the country in general and the auto industry in particular have begun to experience the effects of an economic malaise. At the auto plant, the rumor mill is working overtime with talk of layoffs and worse yet, plant closures.

Morisseau sets her play in the employee breakroom of the last operating auto plant in the city, giving us four plant workers who are frequent users of the facility. The four have worked together for a number of years, and as often happens when the time spent at a job exceeds the time spent at home, the four have melded into an ersatz family. But all families have their disagreements, hold secrets from one another, and are not above playing one against the other. The workers at this auto plant are no different.

Brian Marable as Reggie and Ella Joyce as Faye

Faye (Ella Joyce) is the plant’s brusque but sensitive union steward. Always willing to help a fellow employee, she’s unwilling to share with others the need she herself is experiencing. Shanita (Shawntay Dalon) is good-natured and pregnant and actually likes her job, enthralled with the power her job as a line worker gives her in being able to bring the production of the entire plant to a screeching halt should she ever choose to do so. Dez (Brian Taylor) is a good worker and a friendly enough guy but has anger issues and may be bringing contraband into the plant. Reggie (Brian Marabel) is a family man with a wife and kids to support and has worked his way up to a supervisory position even though he has less seniority than some of the others.

Tension among the group arises almost immediately. As a supervisor, Reggie straddles the fence between reporting to management and having concern for his employees. Dez believes Reggie knows more than he’s telling and accuses him of holding back information about impending layoffs. All four of the workers have personal issues that need tending to. What will happen to their jobs and will the four finally come together in their time of crisis is what “Skeleton Crew” is all about.

Brian Marable and Ella Joyce

By virtue of the playwright’s intent and the racial composition of Detroit at the time, each of the four characters in the play are Afro-Americans. Morisseau’s script, however, emphasizes the humanity of her characters rather than their race, and with but a few minor adjustments, the storyline and personal issues of the characters could be applied to any group of blue collar workers.

Detroit Public Theatre provides an enjoyable home for Morisseau’s nicely crafted script. Director Steve H. Broadnax III has cast well, the four characters coming off as likable despite the situations they find themselves in. The realistic set, replete with coffee mugs, kitchen appliances, a bulletin board whose messages routinely go ignored, and metal lockers that would have plenty of stories of their own to tell if only they could talk (design by Daniel Robinson), looks like a typical retreat that offers workers a temporary respite from the grind of their jobs. Video projections, enlivened with sounds that give a sense of the clang and clamor that are part of life in a working auto plant, are used whenever the set goes dark to indicate the passage of time (projection design by Jeromy Hopgood).

The play ends with several of its sidebar issues left dangling. But perhaps that’s the point of it all: when you work for someone else, at a job that may or not be there tomorrow, it’s difficult to go to bed each night without a whole bunch of issues being left unresolved.

Costume design for “Skeleton Crew” is by Taran Muller Zackrison. Lighting is by Aaron Tacy, sound by Curtis Craig. The show runs through October 29th. Tickets are available online at, by phone at 313.576.5111, or in person at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra box office. Detroit Public Theatre performances take place at the Robert A. and Maggie Allesee RehearsalHall inside the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center located at 3711 Woodward Avenue in Detroit.

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