The Angry Skeleton Crew Workers of Labor History

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, Skeleton Crew

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

Dominique Morisseau’s new play Skeleton Crew, about workers at a Detroit auto plant who fear the plant may shut down and cost them their jobs, is set in 2008, at the start of the recession and at a time that the entire automotive industry was in peril and had to be saved by the federal government. It is a sharply written play full of deep and absorbing characters, but Skeleton Crew is really just the latest chapter in labor history in which mega-corporations sometimes destroy the lives of tens of thousands hard working American laborers.

This same play, with just some technological language changed, could have been written about workplace closings and layoffs in 1783, 1837, 1857, and the 1890s, the 1930s or 1970s. Over all those years the names have changed, but the characters on both sides, labor and management, have pretty much remained the same.

Morisseau’s work is a moving and evocative play and you worry that the people in it, workers and a plant supervisor, are not just going to be out of work, but emotionally wrecked. The story of the run up to the feared layoffs is full of tension and inner turmoil. I was in a situation like that myself twenty-three years ago, and the last two years, before the big layoff of hundreds of us happened, and it tore the hearts out of us. Rumors flew, almost all unsubstantiated, people grasped at any bit of slender hope, shuddered over bad news and constantly, every single day, wondered what would happen to us.

That’s where Skelton Crew starts. The supervisor and the union rep both know that there is a strong chance the plant may close and that most of its United Auto Workers members will lose their jobs. They are all good people and at the start of the play relate anecdotes about why they love making cars and their jobs. The car symbolizes America, and American industry, and they are proud of both.

Tensions tighten as the play moves on. The union rep, Faye, is worried that all of her people will be fired, and tries to assess the damage to her unmarried, pregnant friend and worker Sharita. The management supervisor, Reggie, knows that if the plant goes, so does he. Dez is so upset about violence in Detroit that he starts to carry a gun in his work bag. The people get angry, not just with the plant executives but with each other. Day by day, in their nicely designed factory break room, animosity flares as the plant races towards its destiny.

Amid the employment turmoil, personal stories spill across the break room. Dez and Sharita flirt with each other constantly, each critical of the other, but loving and supportive, too. Faye, who has worked there nearly three decades, suffers a personal breakdown that she knows will be capped for good if the auto factory closes. The supervisor, Reggie, lifelong friend of Faye, is torn emotionally and fights with Faye, friends and his wife at home.

Morisseau, in her third drama of a trilogy about Detroit, has written a solid play; the sparks are in the personal collapses of the workers. She has captured, majestically captured, the tensions of workers in an auto plant, in any company that might go under. They are tensions you might expect and might not expect, but they are real and they hurt. She has done a superb job of outlining them.

Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson does good work in telling the corporate story of the threatened layoffs and the personal tales of the workers and plant supervisor at the same time. He gets sturdy acting from Jason Dirden as Dez, Nikiya Mathis as Sharita, Wendell B. Franklin as Reggie, Adesola Osakalumi as a musical performer and, especially, the impressive Lynda Gravatt as Faye.

The play does have its weaknesses, though As an example, the nicely drawn character of pregnant Sharita has a lot of flaws. How did she get pregnant? What does she do about it? What will she do with the baby when she gives birth? Faye, too, is too loosely drawn. Did she have to hide her lesbianism all those years at the plant, when her sexual preferences were not accepted by society? How did she fall into the great weakness that threatens her domestic stability?

Most of all, worst of all, the playwright tells you nothing about the recession. It was the economic collapse of the country in 2008 that nearly sunk the auto industry and yet there is nothing about it in the play. From 2000 to 2008 fuel costs rose at the same time that America’s auto manufacturers were pushing their high cost SUV vehicles, traditional gas guzzlers. The high cost of fuel slowed SUV sales and then the recession struck. No one had money to buy any cars, especially the expensive SUVs. Auto sales slumped. The crisis nearly sunk the auto industry, that was saved by enormous bailouts of the Obama administration.

And, too, somewhere, somehow, the playwright should have reminded the audience that what is threatened in this play did happen often in American history to other industries.

At the end of the American Revolution, the overproduction of goods and interrupted trade with England brought on a severe recession and companies that produced products laid off many people who, of course, had no unemployment insurance. The same thing happened in the Panic of 1837, when a sharp economic decline, that lasted a good five years, sent thousands out of work in New York City and other urban areas. Those laborers had no organized unions to support them and many wound up both homeless and penniless. Hundreds were laid off in the thriving shipping industry in 1857 while the shipping company owners continued to reap large incomes.

This play about 2008 Detroit could have been about 1783 Boston, 1837 Philadelphia or 1857 and 1930 New York. The story of financial calamities and labor strife is a long and dark one in the United States. Skeleton Crew is a nice, provocative look at one recent chapter of it.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the Atlantic Theater Company. Set Design: Michael Carnahan, Costumes: Paul Tazewell, Lighting: Rui Rita, Sound and music Robert Kaplowiitz. The impressive projection system was designed by Nicholas Hussong. The play was directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. It runs through February 14.

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