“Skeleton Crew,” By Playwright Morisseau, Finds Life in Detroit

Photo: courtesy of Dominique Morisseau.

With its deep-seated themes of morality and hardship, Skeleton Crew is the final play in Dominique Morisseau’s trilogy “The Detroit Projects,” which is inspired by the late August Wilson. Focusing on the auto industry, the four-character drama (the first two in the series are Detroit ’67 and Paradise Blue) beautifully unfolds multifaceted conflicts one after another, keeping the audience guessing while touching on many issues, including sexuality, trust, addiction, struggle, pride and, most of all, money.

The Detroit-born Morisseau is an actor as well as a playwright; she graduated from the University of Michigan, where she first began writing plays. Her work has earned her many awards, including the NAACP Image Award and the Jane Chambers Playwriting Award. She also is currently working as executive story editor for the Showtime series Shameless.

Set during the Great Recession, Skeleton Crew follows three workers at an auto factory, one of whom is the union leader. The fourth character is the supervisor of their plant. After hearing word of surrounding factories shutting down, the worries facing the autoworkers are palpable.

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Skeleton Crew received a developmental production at NYC’s Lark Development Center and was then further refined at the Sundance Institute Theater Lab in 2014. Off-Broadway, the play’s official opening night was held at the Atlantic Theater Company on Jan. 19, 2016 — one year and a day before President Trump’s inauguration.

Trump, of course, campaigned on a platform of bringing jobs back to Detroit and to the Rust Belt states surrounding it. His pitch, still unproven, was that by rolling back regulations and tightening policies on immigration, jobs in the auto and coal industry would come back to the US. Michigan was one of three states, with Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, to flip from blue to red and carry Trump to the White House.

In Skeleton Crew (as in another similarly themed play, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning Sweat), the characters all face some sort of hardship — in this case resulting from a fleeting auto industry. They work hard to make the best of what’s left behind from an industry in flux. In its way, the play asks a question: Could Trump bring change to this region? Read my interview below with the playwright for her no-holds-barred answer.

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Tell me about your strong relationship to the city of Detroit.

Growing up in Detroit when it was over 90% Black, I never had a sense of inferiority because my cultural background was affirmed and respected everywhere I went. This doesn’t mean I grew up without challenges, but I also grew up with a strong sense of identity and possibilities of what I could become. My doctors were mostly Black. My teachers were a diverse crew of white, Black, Indian and East Asian. My most incredible Black history teacher was a Korean man. There was always a sense that my identity was tethered to my city and my family. They were one in the same.

Then you left Detroit…

When I finally left Detroit and went to school in Ann Arbor, just 40 minutes away, I suddenly was no longer in excess. I was a so-called “minority” for the first time in my life and it was uncomfortable. It was where I would struggle for quite awhile throughout my education to find value and space for my cultural identity and upbringing. I suddenly felt like an afterthought in society rather than a very necessary participant in our social structure. The art would be my way of re-affirming my value, my voice, my cultural perspective and my humanity.

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And so when Trump would make his “promises,” what would cross your mind?

When discussing Trump and his inflated promises of restoring jobs to cities who have experienced economic decline, I would have to look at his track record and his overall investment in these cities before running for office. I would have to ask myself: If helping to restore industries and jobs to the disenfranchised was important to this man, why would he need to wait to become president to make this alleged impact? He is an entrepreneur. He could’ve invested in Detroit and other cities in the Rust Belt on his own. Why would we believe that he cares about our disenfranchised communities as a president if he never cared about them as a businessman?

So I guess the short answer is…

So I guess the short answer is: Hell no, I don’t believe there will be any healthy and sustainable jobs restored to the Rust Belt by a man who denies climate change, racial and systemic bias, gender discrimination and a host of other concerns that greatly impact our industrial growth as a nation. You can’t progress a nation or its cities if you still espouse anti-progressive beliefs. Business sustainability is about predicting the progress of the future, not restoring a nation to pre-civil rights social chaos. No, no, no.