There have been a lot of “thinkpieces” on the internet lately about how misguided it is to think of your job as a “family.” Workplaces don’t run on love and loyalty — they run on the bottom line. And if your employer encourages you to think of your workplace like a “family,” they’re likely asking you to go above and beyond in your job, perhaps neglecting your own actual family.
The auto factory workers in Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew” — now running at Actors Theatre — are learning that lesson the hard way. Though they function in a family-like way, with matriarch Faye (Madelyn Porter) central to this unit, they’re learning that she can’t protect them from the impending closing of the Detroit factory or the damage it will do to their aspirations — especially hers.
Faye, who also is the Union Leader, doesn’t play by the rules. The set, which is the factory breakroom, is dotted with signs that say “No Smoking, Faye,” and, of course, she does. And when she receives the news of the factory closing from supervisor Reggie (Anton Floyd), who is very much a surrogate son figure, he swears her to secrecy.
She struggles, knowing that Dez (Dexter McKinney) is just a few thousand dollars away from opening up his own shop, and Shanita (Patrese D. McClain) is scared, very pregnant and devoted to her job.
Faye herself seems to be shouldering a dark financial burden and has worked there 29 years, just shy of the 30 she needs to get the best benefits package.
It’s 2008, and we know how this story will play out for these people. Around 2.5 million people lost their jobs in the 2008 recession, and the economic rebound didn’t even start until 2010. Knowing that bit of history casts an even darker shadow — the characters know they’re in a bad predicament, but they don’t know how bad.
Porter’s performance as Faye is extraordinary, and she has been deservedly lauded in every review of the show. McClain’s “pregnant and hormonal” Shanita also is a star player. Her monologue on road construction and change late in the play sums up a central theme.
“Nobody wants to merge anymore,” she says. “But people used to. Maybe we need a whole new city.”
Throughout the play, the scene changes are marked by hip-hop dancers from the Safiyyah Dance Co. (Steffan Clark, Alaina Kai and Terrance Smith) whose moves mimic the daily routine of factory workers. Safiyyah Rasool, a Jeffersonville, Ind. native, was the movement director and leads the company.
Director Steve H. Broadnax III toured nationally with “The Hip Hop Project,” a play he wrote, directed and choreographed. He currently teaches at Penn State University, and this is his first work with Actors Theatre.
The entire design team also is new to Actors, though there was no evidence of this with their work in the complex Bingham Theatre. The set and staging were spot-on to the tiniest detail, like the workers drinking the very Michigan-popular soft drink Faygo.
The audience knows the hard lessons these characters still have yet to learn — about the economy, about their “family,” about the national turmoil to come — so the end notes of optimism and hope come with a tinge of unfortunate reality.
In 2017, we face new and different industries crumbling and livelihoods made obsolete. “Skeleton Crew” is a powerful reminder of the mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters at the heart of these obsolescences.
The play continues Dec. 5-10. Tickets start at $29 and are available online.