Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Theatre: Skeleton Crew


Jason Dirden, Lynda Gravatt, and Nikiya Mathis in Skeleton Crew. Photo by Ahron Foster.

Who: Dominique Morisseau, playwright; Ruben Santiago-Hudson, director
What: Play
WhereAtlantic Theater Company
When: January 6-February 14, 2016
Why Watch: “This is the Motor City. This is where people make cars. Now it’s become a city where people are living in their cars,” observed playwright Dominique Morisseau, a native of Detroit and author of a trilogy of plays (Detroit ’67, Paradise Blue) set in that beleaguered city (which is also my hometown). If you’re still looking for the successor to August Wilson, Morisseau might be it (with the added bonus of a feminine perspective); her trilogy, after all, was inspired by Wilson’s own 10-play Pittsburgh cycle.

In one of the last remaining auto factories in 2008 during the height of the Great Recession, three line workers – Faye (a no-nonsense but compassionate Lynda Gravatt), the lesbian union rep with 29 years on the job; Dez (Jason Dirden), the charismatic but volatile hustler; and Shanita (Nikiya Mathis), the single mom-to-be whose dreams are set to the hum of the factory machines – play cards, flirt, philosophize, and gossip in the break room, sporadically interrupted by their foreman’s – Reggie (Wendell B. Franklin), a local guy done well for himself – best efforts to keep them in line. They’re skilled at their jobs, which they take great pride in and which they’re in fear of losing when a rumor spreads that the factory is closing.

The cast, a seamless ensemble, is excellent, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson guides them expertly, with a sense of moral urgency, through the myriad of issues Morisseau subtly weaves into her grounded, slice-of-life depiction of American-dream individualism and community-family solidarity in hard-hit Detroit. These are struggling, flawed, and decent people who justly take pride in creating something that transports – and too often, houses – so many. Morisseau crafts them, and a downtrodden city, carefully, with poetry and respect. This is un-showy but powerful work, with a great lived-in set (Michael Carnahan’s familiar, depressing break room with its shitty coffee and lumpy sofa) and riveting, robotic choreographed breaks by Adesola Osakalumi performed to original, machine-like music by Robert Kaplowitz. There are also pointed, city-specific original songs by Detroit native, Jimmy “J. Keys” Keys. Skeleton Crew is a smart, moving work that should not to be missed.

Bechdel TestPASS

  • Two named women…: Yes. 
  • Who talk to each other…Yes.
  • About something besides a manYes. Faye and Shanita have a wonderful conversation about taking pride in their work, among other things.

Racial Bechdel Test: PASS

  • Two named people of color…: YesThere are no white characters.
  • Who talk to each other…: Yes.
  • About something other than a white person…: Yes. There is no mention of a white person.
Why the Bechdel Tests?

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