'Skeleton Crew' review — a moving portrait of the true essential workers of America

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    Date:
    January 26, 2022
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    You might think a play set in a factory would be dank and depressing. But when you have Dominique Morisseau as the playwright, the factory doesn’t just come alive; it literally dances.

    Morisseau’s play Skeleton Crew is set in a car parts factory. And instead of showing the whirring and grinding of an assembly line, Morisseau does something more ingenious: She has a dancer (a dynamic Adesola Osakalumi) pop and lock to a soundtrack of machinery. Osakalumi's movements are sometimes fluid, other terms jerky. It’s a visual reminder to the audience: The motor that keeps the engines of America running isn’t machines, it’s people.

    Skeleton Crew was first produced off Broadway at Atlantic Theater Company in 2016, in a critically acclaimed run. Morisseau’s tautly crafted play, with just five characters, is now on Broadway with Manhattan Theatre Club. It has only grown in power and potency since 2016.

    Skeleton Crew is set in Detroit (Morisseau’s hometown) in 2008, in a stamping plant for automobiles. The factory workers have been there for years, some decades, and the play takes time to show the familial bond between them. The matriarch is Faye (Phylicia Rashad), the most senior of the bunch, who has worked on the line for 29 years. The older brother figure is Reggie (Brandon J. Dirden), who used to work on the line and is now a supervisor. Then there’s the younger ones: Dez (Joshua Boone) and Shanita (Chanté Adams), whose will-they-won’t-they flirtations give the play its moments of much-needed levity.

    Conflict arrives when Reggie tells Faye that the plant is about to shut down. The characters’ moral code is tested: Do they side with the factory, which represents stability, or each other, their work family? When shit goes down, do you try to save everyone or just yourself?

    The cast is new for the Broadway production, though Ruben Santiago-Hudson (who directed Skeleton Crew Off-Broadway) returns to direct.

    At first glance, Rashad might be a curious choice for the role of Faye, a woman whose hands are rough, and who speaks simply and directly: “If it’s one thing I always known, it’s cars and women,” she tells her coworkers (Faye is also a lesbian). Most viewers might associate Rashad with a more refined sensibility. Yet Rashad has transformed herself into the grittier Faye. Her voice is more gruff. Even down to the way the character walks, slightly bent over and in a shuffle, as if she’s carrying a heavy load on her back.

    Rashad herself also carries a warm, maternal energy. This helps the audience to understand why Faye would care more about how the closures affect the younger people around her than herself. And why she is so prideful that she doesn’t disclose her old difficult circumstances to anyone.

    As Reggie, Dirden plays a man torn between the white-collar promise of the bosses upstairs and his loyalty to the crew he came from. It’s difficult initially to trust Reggie — he is management, after all. But Dirden has a natural charisma that just begs for your sympathy (who can say no to that melodic voice?). When he is finally given a monologue in the second act, in front of Rashad’s Faye, Dirden makes a meal of it. The two of them together in one scene is an acting masterclass. (In a sign of just how small the theatre community can be sometimes, Dirden’s brother Jason was in the original Off-Broadway production of Skeleton Crew.)

    What Morisseau skillfully does with Skeleton Crew is create a portrait of the lower working class that isn’t bleak, hopeless, or condescending. The characters in Skeleton Crew are in a dire, unfair situation, but that situation does not define them. These are not, in the unfortunate words of New York Mayor Eric Adams, “low skill workers.”

    When Shanita (a warm, affable Adams) talks about why she takes pride in her job — saying, “I’m building something that you can see come to life at the end. Got a motor in it and it’s gonna take somebody somewhere” — it is moving and commands your respect.

    That is perhaps why Skeleton Crew hits more potently now than it did in 2016 for me. When society shut down in 2020, we all saw who the true essential workers are. They are not the CEOs or people who worked in glass high-rises. They are the people stocking grocery store shelves, delivering packages, making cars. And they are disproportionately people of color.

    Society has now caught up with Morisseau’s play. In Skeleton Crew, Morisseau makes us see the line that divides the blue collar and white collar workers as what it really is, a man-made structure that must be dismantled, because it is that line that keeps all of us from realizing our true power.

    Skeleton Crew is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre to February 20. Get Skeleton Crew tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

    Photo credit: Brandon J. Dirden as Reggie and Phylicia Rashad as Faye in Skeleton Crew. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)