By John Lyle Belden
You see the signs, and not just the unusual ones on the bulletin board. Management holds a lot of private meetings; rules start tightening up; workers leave and are not replaced; rumors circulate. The writing is on the wall, perhaps literally when notices go up: people are going to lose their jobs, and perhaps the entire workplace will soon close.
What had been unthinkable in times of booming industry and union strength has become too common now. I went through a similar situation, perhaps you have, too. And in a recent era, this was the fate of Detroit auto workers in Dominique Morrisseau’s “Skeleton Crew,” the drama presented by Summit Performance at the Phoenix Theatre.
Faye (Dwandra Nickole Lampkin) is within months of 30 years at the plant. She is also: a proud UAW rep; a feisty cancer survivor who can’t – won’t – give up smoking; stubborn protector of her crew, especially Shanita (Akili Ni Mali) and Dez (Kerrington Shorter); practically a mother to the foreman, Reggie (Daniel A. Martin); wise and philosophical, always with something to say; eager to take your money in cards, but not always successful; and a multi-skilled worker who never seems to leave the factory. The fact that she is gay is honestly her least significant trait.
Shanita is the best on the production line, proud of following her father and helping build something others will be proud to own. She doesn’t even let pregnancy slow her down. As for Dez, he’s got big plans, nice shoes and a gun in his bag. He talks smooth and means well, but the fire within him isn’t always under control. He and Reggie don’t get along, as they seem to assume the worst of each other. Then again, Reggie is right that Dez has been gambling on the premises.
And as word swirls around that the plant is doomed, someone is quietly stealing from the plant – taking their severance one metal part at a time.
Needless to say, there is a lot of drama and tension as the uncertainty builds. But Morisseau has sprinkled in a healthy dose of workplace humor, and a bit of feeling among the members of this workplace family. It doesn’t take much digging nowadays for these skilled actors to bring the emotions – from concern to frustration – to the surface. Lampkin is a rock. Mali radiates confidence. Shorter gives substance to the angry-young-(black)man archetype. And Martin, known to many for his comic skills, again shows his true range.
Director Melissa Mowry strikes the right balance in the look and feel of the play. The stage (designed by Mejah Balams) is a plant break room, a temporary respite from the noise and stress just outside the back-wall door. Opaque windows show images of industry, and at transitional points in the story, silhouettes of cast members moving rhythmically – men as machines – choreographed by Mowry with the actors. It’s a brilliant visual element that sticks with you.
Powerful drama with strong performances, “Skeleton Crew” has two weekends remaining, through March 13 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St. For tickets, visit phoenixtheatre.org or go to summitperformanceindy.com.