The handwriting is on the wall for the workers at one of the last standing small auto plants in Detroit. They know management is planning to shut down the operation, but they don’t know when and, more existentially worrying, they don’t who they will be when their occupation is stolen from them.
Set in 2008, at the start of what will come to be known as the Great Recession, “Skeleton Crew,” the third in Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit trilogy, is a powerful drama about workers, the value of their work and what happens to society when that work is taken away.
The play, which opened Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse in a tight ensemble production directed by Patricia McGregor, occasions the dusting off of a word largely forgotten in this tech-driven, union-dissolving, globalized economy: proletariat. Yes, we heard quite a bit about disaffected white working-class workers in the last presidential election. But the historical place of unionized skilled laborers who fought to achieve a middle-class existence for Americans not born into privilege has faded from view
In “Skeleton Crew,” a play that recalls this history from the vantage of African American auto workers trying to hold on as the city around them sinks deeper into despair, the venerable spirit of the old Detroit worker is embodied in the character of Faye (played with grit and gusto by Caroline Stefanie Clay). The union rep at her plant, Faye, a cancer survivor whose life hasn’t been the same since the death of her lesbian partner, is as tough as they come yet ferociously protective of the welfare of her fellow workers.
She is the undisputed ruler of the run-down factory break room, where the play unfolds. Rachel Myers’ set conjures this lounge in all its dusty disrepair. This is where the workers exchange rumors over lunch, play cards and, if they’re Faye, sneak a cigarette despite all the signs forbidding smoking. Hovering a floor above and always in view is the assembly line, which is treated with less choreographic hoopla than it has been in other productions. (McGregor wisely opts to concentrate our focus.)
The factory workers have reason to see management as the enemy, but the central dramatic conflict of “Skeleton Crew” is thankfully more complicated. Reggie (DB Woodside), the supervisor, has a longstanding relationship with Faye, who helped get him his white-collar position. He confides in her that the plant is indeed about to close, but he needs time to work out the best deal for everyone before the union is officially told.
Faye trusts Reggie’s integrity, but she also feels a duty to Shanita (Kelly McCreary), a dedicated worker who’s unmarried and pregnant, and Dez (Amari Cheatom), a highly skilled, ambitious colleague who has a target on his back for his casual relationship to the rules.
“Skeleton Crew” is content to follow the workplace rituals of these people in a manner that may put some in mind of August Wilson’s “Jitney.” The repetitious first act could be condensed. Morisseau is so adept at introducing characters and setting up the story that there is no need to keep reintroducing personality traits and reestablishing plot lines.
Sometimes the language thunders with Wilson-esqe crackle, as when Faye lets it be known that her presence at the factory is inescapable: “The walls talk to me. … I’m in the vents. I’m in the bulletin boards. I’m in the chipped paint. Ain't nobody can slip through the cracks past me up in here. I can see through lockers.”
Occasionally, however, the monologues are too baldly stated. Shanita’s explanation for not wanting to take a job at a copy center because here at the plant “my touch … my special care … it matter. I’m building something that you can see come to life at the end” sounds more like an interpretation of the character’s feelings than how she would actually speak. Reggie’s outburst about the weight of responsibility he’s carrying has a similar playwriting ring.
If these moments stand out, it’s only because the dialogue is otherwise extremely well observed. Morisseau, who served as a co-producer on the Showtime series “Shameless,” knows intimately her characters’ sorrows, quirks and sustaining humor. She doesn’t stint on the woes, but she doesn’t make her play about any one personal burden or setback.
In keeping with a drama in which the local union banner hangs prominently, “Skeleton Crew” is concerned above all with the aggregate experience. Individuals matter, but the collective matters more.
Morisseau doesn’t fall into any of the melodramatic traps she teasingly sets up. Neither Dez’s gun nor his budding romance with Shanita nor Faye’s secret living situation becomes the means to explode or resolve the plot.
Ethical questions are raised in the context of a dehumanizing economy that makes conscience a luxury few workers can afford anymore. But rather than answers, the play provides a showcase for the values that have been jeopardized by corporations all too ready to dispose of the human beings whose industriousness made them rich.
McCreary’s Shanita takes enormous pride in punching in early to make her daily contribution. Cheatom’s Dez may swagger, but he knows he’s too good to be easily replaced. Woodside’s Reggie is determined to do right by everyone, including himself. These qualities made American industry once the envy of the world, and no one embodies them more than Clay’s formidable Faye, who stands tall, knowing the legacy of her labor.
The production’s final moment is interpreted in far too upbeat a fashion. There’s no doubting the fight and feistiness of these self-respecting characters and their capacity to endure, but the fate awaiting them is less certain.
No need for a sitcom sop to the audience. Yes, some Geffen theatergoers found the social realism of “Ironbound,” a play by Martyna Majok (this year’s Pulitzer Prize drama winner), heavy-going. But many were gripped by the depiction of an immigrant experience too long ignored by our stages.
Morisseau, one of the rising talents in American drama, does something similar by taking us inside a union shop where American playwrights haven’t often ventured since Clifford Odets’ “Waiting for Lefty.” In “Skeleton Crew,” the American worker, cranky, caring, overburdened and endangered, is given her 21st century dramatic due.
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Where: Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; ends July 8
Information: (310) 208-5454, www.geffenplayhouse.org