That a play set in an auto parts stamping factory is part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival is reason enough to see Skeleton Crew, Dominique Morisseau’s fine, emotionally feral play that features two blue collar women who are not just good at their jobs, but so highly skilled they are the only ones who can do what they do every day, every shift, their talents as fixed as the metronome pound of the assembly line.
Faye (Stephanie Berry, incandescent amid the grime and dust of a Detroit auto factory setting) is a 29-year veteran of the line and the union rep, who dispenses gritty wisdom and encouragement with the same no-nonsense brio she uses when brewing the break room coffee. Shanita (Brittany Bellizeare, exuding positivism and bravery without a hint of sentimentality) is a young, second-generation line worker and a mother-to-be, who hears music in the incessant rhythm of the stamping presses. To her it is not industrial noise, but a reassurance of hard work, industry, progress.
Trouble is, the rusted out, bottomed out world of Detroit in 2007 may have no more use for specific talents like Faye and Shanita. Auto factories are turning into ghost plants one after another and Skeleton Crew begins with the rumor that this factory will shut down by the end of the year.
The play takes place entirely in the well-used, grubby break room of this factory (major shout outs to Mariana Sanchez for the lived-in set, Burke Brown’s graveyard lighting and especially Darron L. West’s industrial soundscape, so ingenious you forget it’s there after awhile), as Faye tries to keep a lid on the situation and save her work family while trying to save her unraveling self. Supervisor Reggie (a powder keg Sekou Laidlow) teeters between enforcing the company line and trying to do what’s best for his workers as well as considering his obligation to his home and family.
Shanita and Dez (Gabriel Lawrence, bringing dimensionality to the role of the player), a young and hotheaded streetwise Romeo, struggle to find solid ground amid this uncertainty—how do you do your job now and build a future when the line you’ve worked on for so many years is wobbling and wavering right before your very eyes?
The four characters grapple with insecurity and consolation, ethics versus the easy temptation of crime, and whether “I’ve got your back” is a realistic stance in a callous, gabby time where every man for himself is not just a mantra but essential for survival.
Having been the victim of corporate shutdowns in the once-vibrant newspaper industry and witnessed the aching death of big steel with the closing of Baltimore’s Bethlehem Steel, it’s almost a PTSD experience to watch Skeleton Crew and director Nicole A. Watson sustains the urgent stressful climate of a workplace and industry on the edge of disappearing.
closes March 4, 2018
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It depicts a cold time for the American worker, but Skeleton Crew pulsates with warmth. In that shabby little break room, it’s warm—full of the gallows humor and practiced camaraderie you find in long-time coworkers. You get sucked into Faye’s story from the second you meet her and the infectious, crazy energy that comes off her in waves and the survivor’s pride she wears like armor.
You also feel for Shanita and Dez, whose futures become intertwined as their workplace flirtation takes an unexpected twist out of hormones and necessity. Even Reggie surprises you just when you think you’ve got him pegged as a company man to the bone. The same thing goes for Morisseau’s imagery, full of unexpected contrasts–unreliable cars that conk out, but also ones so strongly built they can save lives in a crash; factories ghostly with dust and abandonment, but also those that stubbornly thrum with life and whose walls speak to Faye and in whose dust writes messages to Faye and Shanita.
There is hardscrabble poetry and music in Morisseau’s dialogue, which dances with percussive hip-hop rhythms in particular with Faye and Sharita’s speeches, riffs that swoop and dive like the jazz and blues you hear in August Wilson’s works.
With Wilson, the words and actions of his characters are like the revolutions of a record—every spin around the turntable takes the measure of a man or woman. With Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, it is not a circle but a line. Working the line, walking the line, toeing the line—all make who you are and who you are meant to be.
Skeleton Crew by Dominique Morisseau . Featuring Brittany Bellizeare, Stephanie Berry, Sekou Laidlow, Gabriel Lawrence . Scenic Designer: Mariana Sanchez. Costume Designer: Karen Perry. Lighting Designer: Burke Brown. Sound Designer: Darron L. West. Assistant Director: Mari Andrea Travis. Dramaturg: Faedra Chatard Carpenter. Stage Manager: Lori M. Doyle. Produced by Baltimore Center Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.