Dominique Morisseau, the 2018 winner of a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, has become one of the most produced playwrights in the country. True Colors Theatre Company is currently staging a formidable version of her acclaimed Skeleton Crew — running through March 10 at the Southwest Arts Center — that proves to be a tremendous acting playground for its quartet of performers.
Directed by Jamil Jude, who in August will take over as artistic director of the company as Kenny Leon departs, Skeleton Crew is the third in the playwright’s Detroit Project trilogy, which includes Detroit ’67 and Paradise Blue. True Colors produced Detroit ’67 in 2015 and will be tackling Paradise Blue in the near future.
Set in 2008, at the beginning of the Great Recession, Skeleton Crew follows the life of four African Americans working at a Detroit automotive plant. Rumor has is that the plant is going to shut down soon, but until they hear definitive words, they are all working as usual. One of the employees, Shanita (Asia Howard, making her True Colors debut), is in her late 20s and pregnant, and the contributions she makes at the plant mean a great deal to her. Also at the plant is Dez (Anthony Campbell), around the same age as Shanita and street savvy — and unsubtle in his flirtations with Shanita. Reggie (Enoch King) is the foreman, walking a fine line of being on friendly terms with his team but also towing the line in dealing with his administration.
The center of the play, unexpectedly, turns out to be Faye (Tonia Jackson), who has been with the company 29 years and is facing some health challenges. In her 50s and a lesbian, she is also the plant’s union rep, intent on looking out for her coworkers.
Morisseau, also a story editor for the Showtime television series Shameless, won a special citation Obie Award for this work. She has crafted a play that seems especially relevant for our time, with workers feeling in the dark about their future and living paycheck-to-paycheck.
All of her characters here have layers, and the ensemble knows how to find them. Morisseau’s women are especially three-dimensional. Shanita is very by-the-book, in her professional and personal life, doing everything she can to have a healthy child. Howard brings a sweetness and vulnerability to the character. Jackson makes Faye a fascinating presence, not afraid to show the pain and scar tissue that Faye has developed and tries to hide. She has dedicated three decades to the plant and is observant about what is going on around her. She also likes to remind Reggie she helped get him his job.
For his part, the seemingly unflappable Reggie has a hard time keeping his composure at times, and King convincingly shows his mounting frustrations, while Dez’s tough guy exterior belies who he really is. Campbell may not have the chops his costars do, but he makes Dez real. The relationships between all of them, foremost Faye and Reggie, are particularly engrossing.
Jude directs with a fine sense of naturalism. For a play that takes place in one location, it moves with ease and never seems stagey or overly theatrical, with original music by James Keys and compositions by Chris Lane. Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay’s reliably efficient set is a break room in the plant that looks authentic: a snack machine that is out of order, lockers and signs about meeting and ones expressly asking Faye to stop smoking in the area. The work that goes on in the assembly line at the plant is suggested via some projections above the break room, courtesy of Bradley Bergeron. Some characters get their own projections as well.
The play strays a little off course from time-to-time and never fully resolves its situation but overall has a great sense of place and respect for its characters. Morisseau’s dialogue is believable, almost lyrical at times. The play touches on some serious themes such as class differences, loyalty and ethics but still has its share of humor, with Faye getting some of the most memorable lines.
Skeleton Crew is a quiet show that’s more about its four characters than any major plot mechanisms. Morisseau is able to balance it all, giving each of the characters room to breathe and interact with each other. It’s an involving, observant play, and in the hands of True Colors, it’s one of the standout productions of the young theatrical season so far.