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After Factory Layoffs, The 'Skeleton Crew' Is Left Behind

May 20, 2016

Playwright Dominique Morisseau is kind of the unofficial poet laureate of Detroit. She has written three plays about her hometown and her latest, Skeleton Crew, looks at four African-American automobile workers struggling with the economic downturn in 2008. The play is currently running off-Broadway, where it's gotten rave reviews.

Skeleton Crew takes place in a drab break room in a stamping plant — that's where workers manufacture parts for the big three automakers. The factory has laid off a lot of people and the ones who remain — the skeleton crew — are stressed.

In an interview with WNYC earlier this year, Morisseau described these workers as a family. "I'm from Detroit," she said. "I was born and raised there and I wanted to explore three eras in my city's history that I felt were transformative, that changed the landscape of the city. But also, I just wanted to learn more about the people that were living through some of the crises that happened."

So she went home to talk to people about what it felt like to be in Detroit in 2008. The automobile industry was on the verge of going under, and for the workers in Skeleton Crew, it's an earth-shaking moment.

Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson says Morisseau brings audiences into "the world of blue collar life" with a specific kind of empathy. Each employee is different, and yet "they all need each other," he says.

In one scene, one worker tells another, "You've got to make yourself irreplaceable. That's what I'm doing."

But, as Skeleton Crew goes on, all the characters learn just how replaceable they are — the supervisor, who could lose his house; the worker, who might have to take a lower-paying job, right as she's about to have her first baby; the shop steward, who has been making cars for her entire adult life, and is now living in one.

Morisseau wrote the part of the shop steward — Faye — for actress Lynda Gravatt.

"She is as vulnerable as she is strong ..." Gravatt says. "She hasn't quite figured out how to negotiate how life has beaten her or why it has beaten her."

In a way, Skeleton Crew examines how the financial crisis in Detroit — and in the country — creates personal crises. Santiago-Hudson says Morisseau makes those crises feel and sound real.

"Dominique hears the language of her life, of her community," Santiago-Hudson says. "And she not only hears it, she relays it just the way she heard it. It takes a certain amount of courage, because everybody wants to dilute and everybody wants to sanitize. She's not trying to sanitize; she's just trying to let you experience them."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Playwright Dominique Morisseau is kind of the unofficial poet laureate of Detroit. She's written three plays about her hometown. Her latest is "Skeleton Crew." It's about four African-American automobile workers struggling with the economic downturn in 2008. The play is running off-Broadway right now, where it's gotten rave reviews. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: "Skeleton Crew" takes place in a drab break room in a stamping plant. That's where workers manufacture parts for the big three automakers. But times are tough. The factory has laid off a lot of people. And the ones that remain - the skeleton crew - are stressed.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SKELETON CREW")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) How production coming on the three line?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Slow since we done lost half the crew. I don't know how Reggie expect us to meet deadline. My feet swelling as it is. I'm already working overtime for days this week.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: Want me to rub them?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Want me to kick you?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOMINIQUE MORISSEAU: It's exploring a group of working - a family of workers who sort of have to all deal with the different impacts that this potential closing will have on them.

LUNDEN: That's Dominique Morisseau in an interview with WNYC earlier this year. "Skeleton Crew" is the final play in a trilogy about her hometown.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MORISSEAU: I'm from Detroit. I was born and raised there. And, you know, I wanted to explore three eras in my city's history that I felt were transformative, that changed the landscape of the city. But also, I just wanted to learn more about the people that were living through some of the crises that happened.

LUNDEN: So she went home to talk to people about what it felt like to be in Detroit in 2008. The automobile industry was on the verge of going under. For the workers, she focuses on in "Skeleton Crew," it's an earthshaking moment. Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson says Morisseau is able to portray her characters with a specific kind of empathy.

RUBEN SANTIAGO-HUDSON: This play is really important in the sense that you come into the world of blue-collar life. So to go and see the integrity of these people and also how they feed off each other, they're so - all different, and they all need each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SKELETON CREW")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You've got to make yourself irreplaceable. That's what I'm doing.

LYNDA GRAVATT: (As Fay Davison) How do you figure you irreplaceable? I've been from stamping doors to installing (unintelligible) to them seven years I spent sewing interiors. Ain't nobody in this plant more irreplaceable than Faye Davison.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I'm talking work efficiency and ethic. I don't complain, got the least write-ups, do a lot of overtime.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) And you fine in the mug. That make you irreplaceable as hell to me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) And that's sexual harassment number 5,062.

GRAVATT: (As Faye Davison) I notice you keeping count.

LUNDEN: But as "Skeleton Crew" goes on, all the characters learn just how replaceable they are - the supervisor who could lose his house, the worker who might have to take a lower-paying job right as she's about to have her first baby, the shop steward, Faye, who's been making cars for her entire adult life and is now living in one. Morisseau wrote that part for actress Linda Gravatt.

GRAVATT: She is as vulnerable as she is strong, and life has beaten her. And she hasn't quite figured out how to negotiate how life has beaten her or why it has beaten her. So she, you know, spends her money going to casinos, which many people do.

LUNDEN: And in a way, "Skeleton Crew" examines how the financial crisis in Detroit and in the country creates personal crises. Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson says those crises feel and sound real in Morisseau's dialogue.

SANTIAGO-HUDSON: Dominique hears the language of her life, of her community. And she not only hears it, she relays it just the way she heard it. And it takes a certain amount of courage because everybody wants to dilute and everybody wants to sanitize. She's not trying to sanitize. She's just trying to let you experience them.

LUNDEN: And hopefully feel for the characters' predicament, their pride and their resilience. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.