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Skeleton Crew

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Lynda Gravatt and Wendell B. Franklin
Photo by Ahron Foster

If the two are inextricably tied together, what happens to your soul when your job goes away? This is the question Dominique Morisseau poses in her devastating and devastated new play Skeleton Crew, which just opened at Atlantic Stage 2. Looking at the hollowed-out wasteland of the once-great Motor City, and by extension America itself in the weeks and months before the Barack Obama era began, Morisseau finds that there's no easy answer for where to go or how you feel when everything you know and love is gone. But she also sees that the quest itself, and the ultimate destination, aren't hopeless, and that knowledge enlivens what could otherwise be a truly bleak contemporary American drama.

Not that Skeleton Crew, which has been directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and features a top-notch cast led by Lynda Gravatt, trades much in the way of happiness. In the automobile stamping plant in which it's set, the effects of the Great Recession at its darkest are keenly felt, and each of the four African-American characters who work there are coping with its corrosive impact in different ways. But Morisseau, building upon the framework she established in Detroit '67 (the first entry in the trilogy that this play concludes; the second, Paradise Blue, has not yet been seen in New York), finds a poetry in their trials, as well as a message for all those who struggle to establish themselves, from their inner being on out, in places where that's nearly impossible.

Faye (Gravatt) is the veteran of her unit, 29 years on the job and holding out for just one more until her gold-plated retirement package kicks in. Her (considerably) younger coworkers are Dez (Jason Dirden), something of a street thug who's trying to go legit by opening his own garage, and Shanita (Nikiya Mathis), a gifted young machinist whose family sees in her commitment to the trade something to admire more than the fatherless baby she's soon to deliver. Their supervisor, Reggie (Wendell B. Franklin), worked his way up from the bottom with Faye's help (she and his mother, now deceased, were romantic partners for a long time), but the new pronouncements he's handing down from upper management, and his continued coyness about the company's financial situation, leads everyone to wonder whether he's forgotten where he came from.

Jason Dirden and Nikiya Mathis
Photo by Ahron Foster

The threat of the plant shutting down hangs over all of them, but they're united to it and each other by their dedication to not just their work but the dream it represents. "I'm building something that you can see come to life at the end," Shanita explains. "Got a motor in it and it's gonna take somebody somewhere. Gonna maybe drive some important business man to work. Gonna get some single mama to her son's football practice. Gonna take a family on they first trip to Cedar Point. Gonna even maybe be somebody's first time. Who knows? But I like knowing I had a hand in it, you know?" The others don't feel much differently, even if they find their motives and their productivity questioned every day by the powers that be.

There are reasons for this, such as a recent rash of thefts and Dez's being spotted with a gun and building materials he's not supposed to have. But Skeleton Crew isn't about those kinds of mysteries or the intrigue surrounding them, and no one here makes those particularly compelling in any event. It's the treatment of the people that matters more, as they attempt to maintain their dignity in circumstances that could easily strip it away. When Faye is spending far more time at the plant than she should, and whether Dez and Shanita will recognize the feelings they obviously have for each other, become critical issues because they define the kinds of existence that the workers are (for better or worse) carving out for themselves. Are they living in their work or for their work? Or are they even living at all? And how far have they progressed--or should they have progressed--from four decades earlier, when riots were breaking out in the streets? Shouldn't that also happen now?

Like August Wilson in his landmark Century Cycle, Morisseau calls out to a vital yet ghostly past that informs a challenging, uncertain present. Santiago-Hudson has perfectly crystallized this in his unforgivingly realistic staging, which makes full use of both Michael Carnahan's greasy backroom set, Paul Tazewell's downscale costumes, and Rui Rita's icy lighting, and a wordless dancer (Adesola Osakalumi) whose angular but unpredictable movements echo not just the motions of mass production but the sense of a physical communal history that could be lost with the right gust of wind.

Gravatt anchors the evening with her spectacular portrayal of Faye, which shows us every nook and cranny of conflicted feeling within this despondent yet deceptively realistic woman. She lets us see her survival characteristics and the immense loss she's witnessed during her time, as though she's an avatar for the progress Detroit itself found and lost. No one quite matches Gravatt in intensity, though Dirden (a veteran of The Public's 2012 mounting of Detroit '67) and Mathis (Milk Like Sugar) do well by their characters, finding in them both a sense of the spirit and the tenuous grasp of the gravity of the dangerous positions they're in. Only Franklin seems at odds, and has difficulty unlocking the natural victim that, believe it or not, is in Reggie, too.

He may hide it better, but he's at the mercy of an economy and a society that no longer value the kind of work he and his employees are committed to, so how could the land--and those who inhabit it--not suffer? Reggie's journey, like everyone's, is not easy, and may not end happily, at least in the short term. But with Skeleton Crew, Morisseau ennobles him and the others as symbols of a place and perspective that must not be left behind as the world moves on. Maybe humanity will survive without these four specific people, but without what they represent, the prospects are dicier. And through her careful, passionate writing, Morisseau ensures we see that, even if they and Detroit are dying, there is life to be found and celebrated within the resulting ruins.

Skeleton Crew
Through February 14
Atlantic Theater Company/Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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