We’re in the break room of a stamping plant in Detroit sometime around 2008. An Obama/Biden sticker adorns the refrigerator, but no one here seems particularly hopeful, and the only change on the horizon is the rumored close of the factory. Faye (Phylicia Rashad), the United Auto Workers rep, knows the rumors are true, but her maternal relationship with their foreman, Reggie (Brandon J. Dirden), and her faith in Reggie’s compassion for his subordinates, stalls any union organizing. Thus, Faye watches as Shanita (Chanté Adams), a twenties-something, soon-to-be-single-mom, receives and declines a job offer from the local copy center. “Don’t got the same kind of pride this work got,” she tells Faye. She likes being part of something bigger: part of a businessman getting to an important appointment, a mother to her son’s football practice, or a family to Cedar Point.
In other words, Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew is about the working class at an especially precarious moment. The country was in the middle of a recession but still months away from passing a recovery bill. The labor movement was (and still is) in crisis: in 2008, the share of Michigan workers in unions was 19%. Faye is in her mid-fifties, so it’s not unreasonable to assume she began working at the factory around 1978. Then, the share was over 35%. As of 2020, it’s a little over 15%—and this is still higher than the dismal national average of 10%.
I don’t want to give the impression that Skeleton Crew is pedantic. None of the above is mentioned by Morisseau’s characters, whose lives are driven by more immediate demands: preparing to give birth, preparing to open a small business, preparing to be fired, and preparing to fire a friend. The shape is the traditional well-made play, with its attendant secrets, lies, explosive fights, and quiet, rubble-strewn reconciliations. The actors are all strong and sympathetic to their characters’ competing concerns—loyalty to friends versus loyalty to family, ethical versus professional success—and the set design, by Michael Carnahan, feels comfortable, lived-in, and fills the Friedman stage without any trouble.
If I were to take issue with one element of Skeleton Crew, and if I could do it without revealing major plot points, I would say that Morisseau has more faith than I in the possibility of solidarity between people like Reggie and Faye. Perhaps Reggie is extraordinary in his ability to juggle the demands of management with the needs of his workers, but if that is the case, then Morisseau has decided not to represent the predominant experience of labor in the twenty-first century.
However, I was happy to see that experience in the work of Adesola Osakalumi, a dancer who opens Skeleton Crew—and who reappears periodically—with drone-like movements backed by hip hop drum beats that imitate the drudgery of assembly work. Shanita’s pride in her work is tied to its larger contribution to society: “Here, I feel like I’m building somethin’ important.” In Osakalumi’s body, we see what the human cost of that something important has become.
Skeleton Crew runs through February 20th at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. 254 W. 54th Street New York, NY. 2 hours. One intermission. Photograph by Matthew Murphy.