While it may not be the most enjoyable play to watch, the powerful new Playcrafters production — “Skeleton Crew” by Dominique Morisseau – is important and vital theater, especially in the Quad Cities, in many ways.
Chief among pleasures of live theater is to offer a relaxing escape to another world, far away from our own troubles, to forget about life for a couple hours. That’s not what Morisseau (winner of a 2018 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant) is after, though, here in the final play in her Detroit cycle trilogy.
Set in the break room of a Detroit auto plant, she plunges us precisely into this world – of bitterness, disappointment, worry and unending tensions.
Today’s economic uncertainty, work-family struggles and the nationwide UAW auto plants strikes all give extra resonance to the 2016 play, which is set in 2008 at the start of the Great Recession, where one of the last auto stamping plants in Detroit is on shaky ground, running with its titular “skeleton crew.”
Each of the four workers featured (including the plant supervisor) has to make choices on how to move forward if their plant goes under. Shanita has to decide how she’ll support herself and her unborn child; Faye has to decide how and where she’ll live, and Dez has to figure out how to make his ambitious dreams a reality.
Power dynamics shift as their manager Reggie is torn between doing right by his work family, and by the red tape in his office. And like many workplaces, this crew – in the hands of this eminently capable, devoted cast – becomes a true family, who care about each other.
The 2022 Broadway production was nominated for a Best Play Tony Award and won the Tony for Phylicia Rashad for Best Featured Actress in a Play. The Playcrafters cast really makes you care about each character — Khalia Denise is Shanita, Kermit Thomas is Reggie, Alisha Hanes is the union steward Faye, and Anthony Mitchell is Dez.
Marquita Reynolds of East Moline (a veteran of working at the Alcoa plant in Riverdale) makes a tremendous, impactful directing debut here, after working on many other theater productions as stage manager.
“This isn’t something unfamiliar to me. I’ve been a production worker,” she said recently of “Skeleton Crew.” “I did not work in a stamping plant, but I have worked on the production floor and I have made metal and like I said, I’ve lived this life so I thought I could help other people know what it’s like to do that when they’re going through these characters.”
In her director’s note, Reynolds wrote that the 2008 financial collapse spelled the doom of many auto plants in Detroit, taking away many good factory jobs from middle-class Americans. “The American Dream and the means to reach it are themes of this production,” the program says.
Hanes as the union rep is cynical, no-nonsense, self-effacing and the moral backbone of this play, a persuasive force of nature. Dez and Shanita lean on her to help protect their jobs, and Denise is especially good at revealing the idealism and purpose in her work.
Shanita at one point says she is literally building something important, for herself and the public. If she left the production line for another job, the operation would stop. She takes immense pride in her work.
“I’m building something that’s going to take somebody somewhere, someday,” she says. That’s the American dream, and Denise also shares a scene of sweet flirting with Mitchell as Dez, who is more guarded and unsure.
Dez brings a gun to work, for protection, which causes much concern among the others, and it’s not really clear in the story why he needs it at work.
Hanes (whose character battles breast cancer, becomes a single mother, and later homeless) is a sympathetic mother figure here, who sees and knows a lot, but remains modest and doesn’t pretend she knows everything.
Faye is a true survivor, gritty and persistent, and her emotional scenes with Thomas as Reggie are heartbreaking, gut-wrenching. In the second act, Reggie painfully reveals something he’s ashamed of, and we see he’s also a boss who doesn’t have all the answers, and who really cares about his employees.
Like most people, the characters in “Skeleton Crew” are flawed and are stumbling through life to do what’s right and find happiness.
It’s also worth seeing since Playcrafters (the oldest continuously operating theatrical group in the QC) has consistently been the most progressive theater in the region, in bringing African-American stories, playwrights and actors to the Moline stage.
The actors and director are all Black, but regardless of the color of characters, stories like “Skeleton Crew” are universal and can connect with all audiences, Reynolds said.
“I believe if you’ve ever worked in manufacturing, in any capacity at all, you’ll understand the themes that these folks are living through,” she said. “Reaching out for the American dream and then finding it being taken from you in some way, shape or form and then the fact that we all have just came through the pandemic and how we just had to shut down and how that affected everybody’s life in different ways.”
The play is also how we care for each other – our work families, our chosen families and our literal families. Many other theaters and organizations all talk about boosting diversity, equity, and inclusion, but Playcrafters is doing it – spectacularly.
They are crucial in performing another priceless role of theater: reflecting the brutal realities of the world as we know it, and understanding how other people really live.
“Skeleton Crew” (rated R, with prodigious amounts of profanity) will conclude this weekend, Oct. 13-15 at the Barn Theatre, 4950 35th Ave., Moline. Performances will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and a 3 p.m. matinee on Sunday.
Tickets ($15, $13 for military and seniors) are available the Playcrafters website HERE or by calling 309-762-0330. They also will be for sale at the door while available.