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REVIEW: The Collapse of the Blue Collar Dream in Skeleton Crew (Yellow Tree Theatre)

Darius Dotch, Jamecia Bennett, and Mikell Sapp in Yellow Tree Theatre’s production of Skeleton Crew, now playing in Osseo, MN. Photo by Justin Cox.

Feelings of hopelessness and perseverance pervade in Dominque Morisseau’s play Skeleton Crew, the last in Morisseau’s trilogy on life in her hometown of Detroit, Michigan.  This third play centers on the role that the Detroit auto industry played in giving Blacks well-paying, working class jobs as an entry way to the middle class – and what it was like when the industry rapidly collapsed in 2008 during the Great Recession.  In a co-production between Yellow Tree Theatre and New Dawn Theatre, Austene Van directs a gritty and compelling slice of life for four black employees at a dying automobile plant.

The play centers on four characters.  Faye (Jamecia Bennett) is a nearly 30-year veteran assembly line employee.  She is the union steward and acts as a mother hen to her co-workers.   Shanita (Nadege Matteis) is a much younger employee with great skills on the assembling line and who is both single and pregnant.  Dez (Mikell Sapp) is a more experienced employee who chafes at the work rules and hopes to open his own garage.  Finally, there is Reggie (Darius Dutch), their first-line supervisor who has a special tie to Faye.  When the play opens, we are invited into the work world of these skilled assembly workers.  They take pride in their work but also have their “family time” with each other in the employee break room where all the action takes place.

The drama of Skeleton Crew unfolds entirely in an employee break room. L-R: Jamecia Bennett, Mikell Sapp, and Nadege Matteis. Photo by Justin Cox.

There is more to each employee than what appears on the surface.  Much of the play’s charm is in Morisseau’s use of engrossing dialogue to slowly reveal each character’s secrets as they each deal with problems in their personal lives.  The three line workers are very protective of each other, particularly Reggie of Faye and vice versa.  The four function as a family with Faye as the link between them.

Bennett’s Faye is the focus of the play and her magnetic presence fills up the stage.  There is an emptiness in those scenes where Bennett is absent.  As Shanita, Matteis skillfully plays a more downplayed role as she represents the younger generation that will have to struggle when the auto jobs are gone.  Sapp as Dez operates well as the source of much of the comic relief but he is also compelling as we gradually see emerge a more complex person.  Dutch thoughtfully plays Reggie as a young man who is obviously proud of the fact that he has moved off the assembly line and taken the first steps into management.  But he is conflicted as his supervisory role puts him into conflict with Faye and those that she wants to protect.

Mikell Sapp and Jamaica Bennett play half of Skeleton Crew‘s intimate quartet. Photo by Justin Cox.

Nicole DelPizzo’s scenic design succeeds in creating the authentic look and feel of a factory break room.  Her plastic panels along with Jeff Bailey’s sound design and Courtney Schmitz’s lighting design succeed in creating the feel of the characters melding into the mechanical assembly line during the periods between scenes – eerily reminiscent of the film Metropolis.

Skelton Crew brings us into the life of Detroit autoworkers.  Despite the play’s bleak’s premise, it ends with an inspiring and upbeat note.

Skeleton Crew plays at Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo, MN through March 1.

Bev Wolfe