BWW Review: When Everything Falls Apart: SKELETON CREW at Center Stage
There are two archetypal American stories. In one, everything is new, malleable and alive with possibility. In it, a hero can always "light out for the territory" like Huck Finn, or at least find a frontier of sorts in a settled land, like today's much-discussed "Dreamers." Playwright Dominique Morisseau does not tell this story: she focuses on the other story, the one most of us face today, the one in which everything comes apart, and the only dream is that things will stay the same long enough to allow us to survive, whatever may happen next.
One of the places where the coming-apart story occurred was Detroit around 2008, as the auto industry reeled from the first shock waves of the Great Recession. An assembly plant of that era is the setting of Morisseau's Skeleton Crew, receiving a regional premiere at Baltimore's Center Stage. The employees can't know, as we do, that the American auto industry was entering a great bottleneck, a moment when two of the Big Three automakers nearly went out of business, only to be saved and nursed back to health by a government bailout. All they know is that management is thinning the ranks of assembly-line workers and that the plant itself may close. That immanent obliteration of jobs and thus of a way of life plunges each of the four characters in this play into logistical and moral quandaries.
For Faye (Stephanie Berry), the UAW shop steward with 29 years in, who seems at the outset to be an honored and secure elder, the factory's growing insecurity compounds certain gradually-revealed vulnerabilities she has been hiding, while simultaneously calling on her to try sticking up for her colleagues on the line. For Shanita (Brittany Bellizeare), a proud and pregnant worker who comes from an auto worker family and literally thrills to the sound of a factory, the threat of plant closure is nothing less than a challenge to her values and her plan for her entire life. By contrast, Dez (Gabriel Lawrence) clearly sees the threat for what it is, but seems poised between two fundamentally different responses. Both involve entrepreneurship, but one envisions honest means and the other, criminal ones. Perhaps the worst dilemmas present themselves to Reggie (Sekou Laidlow), who has risen to the ranks of junior management, only to find himself torn between loyalties to former colleagues, especially Faye, and to the company, to whom the workers as individuals matter not at all. And for Reggie, there is clearly a racial subtext to the loyalties to former colleagues, all of whom, like him, are black.
As the show beautifully demonstrates, a factory means so much more than just what rolls off the assembly line. It is a roof over its workers' heads, a community, a source of mortgage payments for one's home and tuitions for one's children, of health care and financial security in one's old age. And when it is threatened, all of these things are threatened too.
Morisseau explores how choices forced by these fundamental threats go right to the fault lines in these workers' souls. And Center Stage's talented cast and the sure hand of director Nicole A. Watson make every tortured flaw believable and fascinating, and every dilemma worth pondering. One does not want the story to end, so as to spend more time with these people.
If there was any flaw in the script, it was that at times it was hard to make out what choices the characters were actually making - as if Morisseau had tried writing those choices both ways and then tried to preserve elements of both in the final version. For instance, there are materiel thefts from the lines as the play progresses, and as I heard it, there is textual support for one, two or none of the characters having been involved. Likewise, Reggie is involved in an altercation with middle management toward the end, and it is difficult to determine from his account how physical it really became, which in turn makes it hard to determine what it meant.
Still, this we know: at the end all of the characters have in their way struggled through the challenges posed by the plant's fate, and in some fashion and in some measure prevailed. The human spirit, Morisseau seems to be suggesting, is hard to crush, regardless of the direction in which the great tides of industrial affairs may flow.
This reviewer briefly worked on a Detroit-area auto parts assembly line for Ford in 1969 (the hardest job he ever held), and can say that the highly-detailed set and the sound design (Mariana Sanchez and Darron L. West, respectively) feel right. This is a convincing presentation of what an auto plant feels like.
If one Googles the locations of American auto assembly shops today, one will see that more of them are to be found in states with weak union cultures than in states where unions would set the moral tone for worker communities. If any single thing can claim that honor, the passing of the old union-style solidarity is the subject of this play. As worker institutions are atomized, the individual workers' resilience and integrity and ability to forge bonds on their own must necessarily come to the fore. Morisseau suggests that they may do that.
Heaven help us if she's wrong.
Skeleton Crew, by Dominique Morisseau, directed by Nicole A. Watson, through March 4, at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD 21202. Tickets $20-$74, 410-332-0033 or https://www.centerstage.org/plays-and-events/mainstage/skeleton-crew . Adult language, adult subject-matter, smoking.
Photo credit: Bill Geenen/Baltimore Center Stage