A Pipeline to the Heart of the ‘D’

Jack Wolfram, Contributing Writer

From the first line alone, “Skeleton Crew” delivers an unexpectedly raw, meaty dose of reality.  The show isn’t a comedy; it isn’t a tragedy, either. Nor is it some fantastical figment of a stuffy, long-since-dead playwright’s imagination.  In fact, there doesn’t seem to be anything fictional or outdated about this show. Catching a matinee performance at Actors Theatre, I found the play delightfully modern and refreshingly real.

The setting – Detroit, circa 2008 – makes for the perfect context in which to stage this play.  Few other places can compete with the storied history, the guts-and-grit culture, and the intense pride associated with the “D.”  The playwright, Detroit’s own Dominique Morisseau, wrote “Skeleton Crew” as part of a three-play series entitled “The Detroit Project” (largely inspired by August Wilson’s “Century Cycle”), and as the name implies, Detroit plays a huge part in the show’s themes.

“Skeleton Crew” suits the demands of modern theatrical literature perfectly as a portrayal of recent history, made engaging and entertaining with fictional characters but believable through all-too-plausible situations.

The plot of the play takes place entirely in the break room (designed by Michael Carnaham, with lighting by Alan C. Edwards) of an automobile stamping factory described as “the last small plant standing,” where three co-workers punch in, gamble, eat, and exchange all sorts of water-cooler gossip.  If the factory still stands, however, it definitely does so on very shaky legs, with its staff reduced to the bare minimum, or the “skeleton crew.”

Cognizant of the volatility of their jobs, the factory’s employees soon become afraid that, as Faye (Madelyn Porter) puts it, “Any moment one of us could be the other.” She goes on to say: “One minute you passin’ the woman on the freeway holdin’ up the ‘will work for food’ sign. Next minute, you sleepin’ in your car.”

The Detroit-bred determination of the skeleton crew can’t help but make one just a little nervous for them.  

Skeleton Crew” suits the demands of modern theatrical literature perfectly as a portrayal of recent history, made engaging and entertaining with fictional characters but believable through all-too-plausible situations.”

The play’s characters include Faye, a 29-year assembly line veteran and the factory’s union representative; the impulsive Dez (Dexter McKinney, Jr.), a hustler-type personality who has ambitions for a life beyond the factory; and Shanita (Patrese D. McClain), a considerably pregnant single-mother-to-be and a second-generation line worker.  Their foreman, Reggie (Anton Floyd), functions as a rags-to-riches persona who successfully “made it out” of the slums and poverty of inner-city Detroit.

Throughout the play, Reggie becomes entangled in obligations to workers and duties to management, and it leaves a chip on his shoulder, although even he doesn’t know which way it pushes him. He reveals to Faye (an old family friend of his) that the plant will be shutting down, putting her in a similarly uneasy position.

This, along with a very entertaining romantic chemistry between Dez and Shanita, and intensifying rumors that someone keeps stealing parts from the plant at night, sets the stage for a plethora of conflicts. As if all of this doesn’t breed enough conflict, we learn just before the second act that Dez “keeps himself strapped” – and I’m not talking about seatbelts. A random locker search one day reveals a handgun hidden in his backpack.

Cars stand out as the most powerful symbols.  The characters work in an automobile stamping plant, assembling cars.  Faye, unbeknownst to everyone but Dez, lives out of her car.  Dez dreams to found his very own auto body shop, and he constantly pulls strings and works overtime to get new parts for his car.  He also regularly insists on walking Shanita to her car after work.

At one point in the production, while teasing Dez about his beat-up, rusty vehicle, Faye says something very thought-provoking:  “It ain’t about (what it looks like from) the outside, (what matter is that) the inside’s dirty as…!”

The cars symbolize lives. Faye’s car represents her irrepressible will to live – the only thing keeping her off the “streets” of insignificance and hopelessness.

Dez’s interactions with automobiles link to his dreams, to the potential life he has before him; he works to acquire spare parts to fix up his car – his life – and propel himself to a better place.  He insists on walking Shanita to her car, realizing (perhaps even subconsciously) that his dream future intertwines with hers.

Dez reluctantly shares with Shanita the story behind the lengthy scar running from just behind his ear to the bottom of his spine.  He’d gotten caught in a terrible car wreck as a young teenager.  He recounts doctors telling him that the remarkably well-constructed body of the car miraculously kept him from being killed upon impact.

If plant workers just like Faye, Dez, or Shanita hadn’t constructed the car so well, Dez would’ve died; if a foreman just like Reggie hadn’t been directing those workers to make the car the way they did, Dez would’ve died.  Even the smallest things in life can have enormous impacts on the lives of others.

Impressive writing blends with equally impressive acting  – specifically that of Madelyn Porter (Faye) and Dexter McKinney, Jr. (Dez).   Porter and McKinney, Jr., turned this story into a memorable theatre production.  Porter’s portrayal of the veteran assembly line worker and union rep seems totally natural – it’s hard to fathom she’s merely acting the part.  She walks the line between “have” and “have not” like a tightrope, ravaged by the deep-set scars of loss – her family, her home – but made invincible by an unfazed determination to beat the odds life has given her.

The clockwork of Porter’s comedic timing, the truth that rings in her inner-city dialect and the tough-love motherly persona she brings to the stage effectively anchor the production.

The best actor onstage, though, was undoubtedly Dexter McKinney Jr., as Dez. His versatility – particularly shining during his back-and-forth comedic banter with Faye and in his teasing and flirting with Shanita, during moments of heart-to-heart dialogue with Shanita, and during high-octane standoffs and arguments with Reggie – gives substance and emotion to the performance more than any other element.

His relatability and humor get audiences smiling, even laughing out loud; his depth and emotional honesty silence them.  His character’s arc over the course of the show appears remarkably well-expressed, and his posturing, mannerisms, and movements came off as utterly convincing.

This play isn’t for the sensitive — or the faint of heart.  This play is for the gritty and the tough.  This play is for the “D.”