By Minda Honey
Photos By Bill Brymer
On an unseasonably warm Friday night, I waited for the elevator to take me from the fifth floor of the parking garage down to the lobby of Actors Theatre. There was already a man waiting for the elevator who excitedly told me that his friend had done the choreography for “Skeleton Crew,” a play about Detroit plant workers set in 2008. His friend, it turns out, is movement director Safiyyah Rasool.
Rasool’s ensemble of dancers – Steffan Clark, Alaina Kai and Terrance Smith – used choreography between scenes to imitate the rhythm and flow of life in a factory and set the cultural tone of the play because Detroit is as much about cars as it is music. At a time when factories are becoming more and more automated, Rasool’s choreography is a reminder of the humanity that was once at the heart of this work.
Once the dancers clear the stage, the first scene opens with who we can only assume is Faye because she’s lighting up a cigarette while standing in front of a “NO SMOKING, FAYE” sign. Faye (Madelyn Porter) reminds me of my granny; from the smoking, the denim jeans, the respect she commands from others and the many years she spent working in the Reynolds aluminum plant before getting to retire and clean out her locker. But mostly because of the way she talks with sayings like, “If, if, if life were a fifth we’d all be drunk,” and, “If you’re feeling froggy, leap.” Faye feels real in a way that if you walked into any factory break room in America, you would not be surprised to see her standing there. Her character is richly layered with slices of her past, which are shared with the audience over the course of the play in the most satisfying way.
She’s joined in the breakroom by Dez (Dexter McKinney Jr.) who is young, street smart, ambitious and Shanita (Patrese D. McClain) who is a scared, pregnant and hard-working woman. Later, foreman Reggie (Anton Floyd) appears and reveals himself as the source of all the signs posted around the breakroom reminding everyone of the rules. And they all are worried about their jobs and how to stay afloat if they go away.
Early on in the play, Reggie confides in Faye, who is the Union Leader, that their plant is shutting down, but makes her promise not to tell anyone yet. This doesn’t sit right with Faye who wants everyone to have as long as possible to prepare for losing their jobs. But Reggie is a kind of surrogate son to her, so she uneasily keeps his promise for as long as she can.
Reggie is tasked with wanting to do right by the crews he oversees as well as Faye, who is a few months shy of getting to retire with 40 years and better benefits, but also trying to look out for himself and his family. With minimal education, Reggie knows his options are limited if he can’t get the company to transfer him to a different plant. At one point in the play, he asks Faye how it’s possible to fight for others and push back against authority without putting yourself and your family in jeopardy.
Dez wants the plant to stay open long enough for him to save up enough to open his own repair shop. But while he’s dreaming about more for himself, he’s also becoming increasingly concerned with his safety in a city where so many have so little that they’re willing to rob and steal to keep their families cared for. We also witness feelings blossom between him and Shanita, who is desperately clinging to her job at the plant, not only for her unborn child, but for the sense of purpose the work gives her. While 2008 is nearly a decade behind us, it’s easy to substitute cars for coal, and see how relevant this play is to our present and our region.
“Skeleton Crew” is about the lives that were reduced to stats and headlines on the nightly news. It’s a play about maintaining integrity when everything that you’ve worked for in life is disintegrating. It’s a play about what it means to be family – on and off the clock. VT