Theater review: “Skeleton Crew” a loving requiem for the auto industry – The Know


The ensemble in the Detroit drama “Skeleton Crew” at Curious Theatre Company, from left: Cajardo Lindsey, Kristina Fountaine, Perri Gaffney and Quinn Marchman. (Michael Ensminger)

3.5 stars

The quartet in “Skeleton Crew” banter, sway and hurt to the thrum of a line. Yes, it’s the rhythmic stomp and whir of the production lines at the automotive stamping plant where they are employed but also the elegiac and rending lines that Dominique Morriseau has written for them.

This is the second in the playwright’s Motor City trilogy that Curious Theatre Company has given a regional premiere. (Last season put the aching, aspiring, equally compelling denizens of “Detroit 67” center stage.)

The action takes place in a large, underused break room where union steward Faye and younger co-workers Dez and a pregnant Shanita gather before, between and after shifts. Before foreman Reggie ever walks in — usually to pin new warnings to the bulletin board — we’ve already heard a few things about him.

The time is circa 2008. The industry’s ailing and someone is picking at the flesh of the plant, stealing parts and metal. The title gives a bone-rattling nod to the ghosts haunting this and other plants shuttering throughout the region as the car industry contracts.

There’s a large row of lockers, a sink, a fridge, an oversized couch, a coffee maker. One of the finer touches of the production (designed by Charles Dean Packer) is the high, industrial-sized windows that hint at the scale of work taking place at the plant but also allow for projections: newsreel clips of labor gatherings but also graphics of cutout, hard-hatted workers gradually being replaced by robotic arms. While evocative, the projections (by El Armstrong) never vie for our attention over the crew’s fraught or funny exchanges. The ensemble  — and the play — are too well built for that.

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As Faye, Perri Gaffney anchors the cast in much the way her character has been a bulwark at the plant. A cancer survivor, a gay woman, she is heart encased in sheet-metal armor. She’s the crew’s bard, too (although one of her finest riffs can’t be printed here). Faye breaks rules that likely didn’t exist when she began working the line 30 years earlier.

Dez is the first to notice she’s hiding something. Quinn Marchman serves up a cocktail of bravado and defensiveness in the role. He isn’t waiting around for management to 86 him but hopes they don’t before he’s launched his new business. He’s at odds with Reggie and not particularly loyal to the union.

Co-workers and friends under duress: Faye (Perri Gaffney, left) and Reggie (Cajardo Lindsey) in “Skeleton Crew.” (Michael Ensminger)

A second-generation factory worker, Shanita is hard-working and pragmatic, but it’s clear she also needs to feel optimistic. She often shares vivid dreams from the night before — or are they prophesies? Kristina Fountaine’s genuine performance teases the touching relationship between labor and, well, labor.

Actor Cajardo Lindsey and director donnie l. betts unspool the tightly wound Reggie with patience. Is he a yes-man or, as Faye tells Dez, just as burdened by the pressures on the plant as his workers? He recently moved his family to a new house with all the hopes suggested in that commitment: better schools, safer streets, financial stability. But Faye reads his face in a heartbeat.

“Skeleton Crew” limns with deep compassion these lives on the line. In introductory remarks on opening night, Curious honcho Chip Walton mentioned the unanticipated yet resonant timing of the production with the heated-up trade war exerting fresh pressures on the big automakers.

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But headlines aren’t necessary to grasp the relevance of Morriseau’s loving requiem for a heavyweight industry, one so instrumental in assembling a middle class. And it’s hard to imagine a time when the quietly riveting drama’s underlying themes won’t have meaning for some portion of the population. How can it be otherwise? With the rise of AI and the compromised promises of the “gig” economy, the meaning of work (personal and cultural) will continue being called into question.

These workers are haunted. But all is not pure sorrow. Dez and Shanita’s tango of flirtation and rebuff charms. And all bones aren’t cadavers: “Bones” is the old-timey name for dominoes, and Dez isn’t above taking a bit of his co-workers’ money in hush-hush games.

A native daughter of Detroit, Morriseau writes of the people and the place, their aspirations and their ailments with rooted understanding. Traces of resilience are hard-won. Whatever optimism rears its beautiful head feels both delicate and tempered. Morriseau makes her intimacy ours. Faye and Reggie, Dez and Shanita become our people — and we’re made better for it.


“Skeleton Crew.” Written by Dominique Morriseau. Directed by donnie l. betts. Featuring Kristina Fountaine, Perri Gaffney, Cajardo Lindsey and Quinn Marchman. At Curious Theatre Company, 1080 Acoma St. Through April 13. Curioustheatre.org or 303-623-0524



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