(Vinson Cunningham’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 1/21/22; Phylicia Rashad plays Faye, a tough, wisecracking union leader and matriarch.Illustration by Owen D. Pomery.)
Dominique Morisseau’s new play, set in a Detroit automotive plant, is, among other things, about the subtle and ever-shifting class distinctions among Black people.
Bristling and jumping and speeding forward with skillful talk, “Skeleton Crew,” the new play by Dominique Morisseau, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson for Manhattan Theatre Club (on Broadway, at the Samuel J. Friedman), stakes out ground that’s viable only in the theatre: the piece offers hope—and a kind of proof—that conversation carried out seriously is its own undeniable action. As Morisseau’s characters think, they speak in eloquent earfuls, and, in speaking, they push themselves and one another toward crises and discoveries that can be resolved only by yet more talk. Friendly insults are a goad and a salve. Side comments grow into rafts of rhetoric. Everyday complaints—those absolutely necessary companions to repetitive work—grasp toward, and often reach, an earthy philosophy. Fuelled on the diesel of ardent chitchat, this play moves and purrs and swerves and does its humane thing, teaching its audience how to keep up as it goes.
The setting is a dowdily crowded break room at an automotive stamping plant in Detroit. If you’ve had a job whose paycheck you appreciated but whose particulars you could take or leave, you know this kind of scene. There are notes on the food in the fridge and, on the walls, big flyers sharing meeting times and picking disciplinary nits.
Faye (Phylicia Rashad) is the tough, wisecracking matriarch of the space. She’s a union leader, undisguisedly admired by her young co-workers Dez (Joshua Boone) and Shanita (Chanté Adams). Faye’s funny and bawdy, openly queer and never afraid to talk some shit and smoke a cigarette, those rule-ridden signs be confounded. “Been this way over fifty years, don’t see why I gotta change now,” she says. She opens up especially when she’s flouting rules. She and Dez—whom she jokingly beckons to “bow down and lick the dust off my Tims”—have a conversation over a game of cards, and she tells the story of her early pregnancy, an older woman giving the young kid a bit of perspective:
Once you shame your mama and turn up with a fast tail, you got to be put out and ain’t no lookin’ back. I was scared shitless but somethin’ in me knew I was gonna survive. Not cuz nothin’ was promised to me or cuz I could see the light at the end of the tunnel or no shit like that. But somethin’ in me knew what I was made of. I was gonna survive cuz I had to.
Rashad—whom I tend to associate with an urbane and respectable Black upper-middle-classness, undoubtedly because of her famous role on “The Cosby Show,” as Clair Huxtable—plays Faye as rooted and brassy, funky and frank. She maintains a mismatch of tempos: Faye moves slowly but talks at a sprint. She, Dez, and Shanita are a working-class team, more or less aware of one another’s woes and gently soothing them with jokes.
Their supervisor is Reggie (Brandon J. Dirden). He’s weighed down by his structural position, dangling between management and the workers he gruffly likes. He wants it both ways, as reluctant bosses often do: he’s in charge but also wants a family feeling. We find out early on that the plant is soon going to close, but it stays a secret between Reggie and Faye, who do have a family tie: Faye and Reggie’s mother were bosom friends, closer than close, and Reggie has known Faye all his life. “Skeleton Crew” is, among other things, about the subtle and ever-shifting class distinctions among Black people, which result not only in dialectical clashes but in other, more complex formations—councils, congregations, choruses, all somewhat fractured by the inconveniences of money and work.
Reggie is “management,” but he comes from the working class, and he knows that one misstep will send him back to the other side of the line. The people he reports to seem to be white and safely distant from the fallout of a plant closure in a way that Reggie could never be. He asks Faye to trust that he’ll help the workers land on their feet—a proposition that shouldn’t fly in a union setting. This is how race and class and family work in this play, all expressed through coaxing conversation: it makes a smart, bold woman soften up just enough to accept such a tenuous agreement. Reggie’s proud that, after so much effort, he can wear a “button-up to work,” as Faye puts it; all of her labor savvy notwithstanding, Faye’s proud of him, too. The love ethic of race and place, familiarity and origin, makes women defend men, and workers cover for their managers and cross lines more consequential but less concrete than the picket.
Tellingly, the play is set around 2008—there’s an Obama bumper sticker prominently displayed on the break-room fridge. The upwardly mobile former President offered the nation, briefly, a way to think about racial uplift without the troubles of racial capitalism and its discontents. The strain falls on guys like Reggie, who eventually have to pick a side.
Dirden is consistently good as a put-together man under pressure—he flushes pinkly with color when his characters have a lot on their minds. So he’s good as Reggie, who wants to move on up, but also to stay “down” with the people he knows. “I’m sick of walking that line,” he laments. “Line that say I’m over here and you over there and even though we started with the same dirt on our shoes.”
Santiago-Hudson directs the actors wonderfully: it’s an ensemble that always works and sometimes crackles, handling Morisseau’s cerebral and joyously verdant text easily. Adams and Boone are soulful as a sensitive, tentatively flirtatious pair: Shanita is pregnant but seemingly estranged from the baby’s father; Dez, head over heels for Shanita, is streetwise but tender, a classic young man in a hurry, with something to prove.