Madelyn Porter & Patrese D. McClain in Skeleton Crew. Photo by Bill Brymer.
By Dominique Morriseau
Directed by Steve Broadnax III
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2017 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Stories of blue-collar workers in American movies, television, and theatre have been around for years, but they always seem to the exception more than the rule. Dominique Morriseau’s Skeleton Crew is a most worthy addition to this important list. I hesitate to give it so significant a designation as “genre” without a larger body of work to refer to.
Her story is about four employees at an automobile assembly facility in Detroit. Rumors abound about cutbacks and even the prospect of the factory closing down altogether, a result that would be difficult, perhaps devastating for everyone. Faye (Madelyn Porter) is the union rep; on the line for 29 years and just a few months shy of full retirement benefits. Dez (Dexter McKinney Jr.), is a brash, younger man filled with the impetuous energy and hubris of youth. One of the ways he expresses this is by hitting on Shanita (Patrese D. McClain), a pregnant unmarried woman whose “baby daddy” occupies some undefined territory in her life. The foreman of their unit is Reggie (Anton Floyd), who has risen up through the ranks with the encouragement of Faye and struggles to establish his authority among the group. He and Dez butt heads often, and Dez keeps asking why Faye favors him.
The answer to that question is revealed in a surreptitious fashion that is a great strength of Morriseau’s writing. There is a good deal happening below the surface of these archetypal characters, complex history and emotions that run counter to expectations. Dez seems particularly designed to fit a stereotype: the angry young black man destined for a life of crime. The other three all have no problem making this assumption when the question arises, and the text and Mr. McKinney’s performance cannily turn on that idea. Shanita’s unmarried, expectant mother is equally sly in this way, and one can almost hear spurious cries of “welfare mother” somewhere in the background.
But Morriseau has created rich, complex characters that are seen first as dedicated, hard workers arguing about overtime pay. Dez is saving to start up his own business, and Shanita is about to have another mouth to feed. Working hard is essential to their identity, as expressed most eloquently in a speech from Shanita in the first act in which she describes the origin of her sense of mission in the job. Most of the conflict originates in trivial, rule breaking infractions in the tawdry break room that is the play’s setting. The endless black & white signs demanding compliance – “No Smoking FAYE”, underscore the ineffectual authority that Reggie holds dear.
Eventually, more serious issues reflect the harsh reality of the economic recession. Skeleton Crew is set in 2008, but the circumstance is one that keeps being repeated, and speaks to concerns being faced by the American working class in this moment. As funny as it, it never loses sight of the fundamental struggle to survive and stay one step ahead of a system that never seems to adequately value the Human Resource.
Steve Broadax III shepherds his cast to exemplary performances that tease all the subtlety out of Morriseau’s text. Madelyn Porter wears Faye like a second skin; weary from carrying the weight of so many truths and heartaches. It is a magnificent rendering of character and delivered with great authority. Patrese D. McClain shows the mix of tough and tender that was probably Faye 20 years earlier, and fully demands the audience’s empathy through this woman’s humanity.
As Dez, Dexter McKinney Jr. hangs so loose you think he might collapse without his Timberland work shoes, and gives the character just enough edge to question his moral center, but when he stands in defiance for a forced search from Reggie, the bitter and hurt expression behind the anger finds the integrity of a man. Anton Floyd has the trickiest challenge as Reggie because the Supervisor aspect of the character dominates his behavior early on and makes him come off as stiff and phony. Eventually he is allowed to also stand for himself in a way that, if not exactly transformative (judge for yourself) at least feels very important for Reggie’s sense of his own identity. And once the connection between he and Faye is made clear, it lends one more vital layer to the humanity of both characters.
Broadnax stages many of the scene changes to include three dancers in factory gear: Terrance Smith, Steffan Clark, and Alaina Kai from the Acting Apprentice Company. The deep, thumping Hip Hop music and the forceful and distinct presence of the three (from my front-row position in the Bingham it was almost literally a lap dance) did more than cover set changes, it was both design and performance that lent something extra to the impact of the production.
Skeleton Crew is the third play Morriseau has written about her native Detroit and its history. She writes with specificity about a particularly urban and blue-collar culture, but taps into universal experience and understanding. In the same way that the Baltimore of The Wire addresses the crisis in all urban American cities, Skeleton Crew is about nothing less than the plight of the working class in the United States. Its characters are Black, and it is set in a specific time and place, but the challenges are much the same for Americans in every industrial state, watching the ground shift beneath their feet and their communities deteriorate from systemic injustice.
November 14- December 10, 2017
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.