Tuesday, January 19, 2016

131. Review: SKELETON CREW (seen January 15, 2015)

“When the Motor City Ran Out of Gas”
Stars range from 5-1.
The absence of African Americans from this year’s Academy Awards nominations is once again an embarrassing news item despite the excellent work available in various well-received films. If SKELETON CREW, Dominque Morisseau’s new play about a group of black auto factory workers in 2008 Detroit, were a movie, it would be criminal if at least one of its four leading performances weren’t up for an award. With Ruben Santiago-Hudson putting pedal to the metal with his sensitive yet powerful direction, Ms. Morisseau’s eight-cylinder play goes from zero to 60 in the blink of an eye, thanks to the high-octane artistry of Lynda Gravatt, Jason Dirden, Nikiya Mathis, and Wendell B. Franklin. There’s also a vital contribution by the wordless Adesola Osakalumi, whose robotic krumping (or is it dubstepping?) to hip-hop music between the scenes comments on the regimentation of factory work. When act one ended, I couldn’t help saying to my guest, “Now that’s professional acting and direction!” It sure is professional writing.

Adesola Osakalumi. Photo: Ahron Foster.
SKELETON CREW—the final piece in the prize-winning Ms. Morisseau’s Detroit trilogy (the others are PARADISE BLUE, set in 1949, and DETROIT ’67)—set in midwinter, takes place in a stamping factory (where sheets of metal are pressed into the shapes that become cars), at the time the American auto industry was suffering the recession’s impact. The playwright’s program notes declare that the play “isn’t about the Big Three” but one of “the small factories that made it possible for the Big Three to exist.” Also the last of its type in town, the factory is facing an uncertain future; the play focuses on the lives and interactions of four workers whose livelihoods are threatened by the dark at the end of the tunnel. While pulling few punches about their personal foibles, the play honors their struggle and those of the working classes they represent.
Lynda Gravatt, Wendell K. Franklin. Photo: Ahron Foster.
Faye (Ms. Gravatt) is the feisty, chain-smoking, aging lesbian, who serves as union rep and who, despite her own shortcomings, is a tough love mother figure to her younger coworkers. One is Dez (Mr. Dirden), a rough-edged, chip-on-his-shoulder, street dude with off-kilter, flat-brimmed baseball cap and Detroit sports team logos on his gear, who hopes to open his own repair shop. The other is Shanita (Nikiya Mathis), a pretty, sassy, soon-to-be baby mama with a prominent bump who takes great pride in her job skills; bump or no, Dez has his eye on her. Finally, there’s Reggie (Wendell B. Franklin), a shirt and tie-wearing family man, whose blue collar became white when he became foreman, and who has a close relationship with Faye, his mother’s friend to whom he’s obliged for having gotten him hired when he was a high school dropout. This decent man must balance his affection for the blue collars he oversees with his white collar obligations, a conflict that threatens to tear him apart when the pressures on him build to the breaking point.
Wendell K. Franklin, Lynda Gravatt, Jason Dirden, Nikiya Mathis. Photo: Ahron Foster.
The workers reveal their fears for the company’s future, their conflicting attitudes toward the union, their survival concerns, and a host of other work and personal issues—romantic, familial, financial, criminal, and gambling-related. Guns, too, are part of the discourse. Rules are posted everywhere, but everyone breaks them in one way or the other, like the way Faye smokes defiantly despite a poster saying NO SMOKING FAYE. Regardless of the incessant bickering and bantering, a family-like relationship based on shared tensions holds them together, and noble sacrifices are made as the factory’s fate looms ominously.
Jason Dirden, Nikiya Mathis. Photo: Ahron Foster.
The levels of poetic colloquialism vary, but each character speaks in a rich, ethnic patois, some of it occasionally bordering on impenetrability. Morisseau handles the language masterfully, making it both character specific, lyrically appealing, and as intense as anything ever heard barreling through Brooklyn on the A train. Early on, for example, there’s this snippet between Dez and Faye when, referring to his mother, he jibes Faye about her menopausal hot flashes:

I know how ya’ll do. Be in the dead of winter, and she talkin’ bout – “Dez, roll the
car window down”. I’m like – hell naw, Ma! Why I gotta freeze in the middle of
January just cuz you in yo’ own personal July?
I hope yo’ mama slapped you good. Ain’t ‘spose to bother a woman battlin’ her
own heat.

All of the action in the roughly two-hour, two-act, episodic play transpires in the factory breakroom, designed by Michael Carnahan as a naturalistic assortment of well-worn lockers, chairs, tables, sink, fridge, couch, and the like. The upstage wall also contains translucent windows through which we vaguely see Mr. Osakalumi performing his robotic moves between scenes. Rui Ruta’s versatile lighting is an invaluable component, as are Paul Tazewell’s authentic-looking costumes; it’s surprising, though, that these financially challenged workers change them for every scene and never wear the same things twice. At selected moments the entire space receives video projections of industrial movement timed to beat-heavy music. Though it’s not clear who contributed what to the hip-hop and R&B soundscape, the original music of sound designer Robert Kaplowitz and the original songs of Jimmy “J.Keys” Keys add immeasurably to the dramatic world.
Jason Dirden, Lynda Gravatt, Nikiya Mathis. Photo: Ahron Foster.
SKELETON CREW’s first act is generally more intense than its second, when more time is taken to explore personal problems between Faye and Reggie and Shanita and Dez; in fact, the earlier punching bag dramatics occasionally shift dangerously toward sentimentality. And you might question the credibility of the climax when Reggie does something theatrically bold but that some may consider out of character. All this passes soon enough and the play concludes on a satisfying, if perhaps, too sanguine note. Nonetheless, one must admit that, despite its title, there’s plenty of meat on this play's bones.
Jason Dirden, Wendell K. Franklin, Lynda Gravatt. Photo: Ahron Foster.


Atlantic Stage 2
330 West 16th Street, NYC
Through February 14