Skeleton Crew: An African-American Arthur Miller at the Huntington?

by Rosie Rosenzweig, Resident Scholar, Resident Scholar, Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University.

If African American playwright Dominique Morisseau has been compared to Arthur Miller, then Faye the union rep in the Huntington Theatre production of Skeleton Crew can be compared to Willie Loman in the classic Death of a Salesman. The winter setting for Morisseau’s play is around 2008 in the break room of a stamping plant when its imminent closing and shrinking workforce threatens the future of four workers: Faye the union representative; Reggie the supervisor and Faye’s surrogate son; pregnant Shanita with a Rosie-the-Riveter work ethic whose dreams carry the metaphor of the play; and Daz the playful street smart hustler with a crush on Shanita. Reggie and Faye’s loyalty to one another makes sitting at opposing ends of a bargaining table a problem.

Both Miller and Morisseau depict how the grinding wheels of the bottom line mentality grind to dust any individuality in the individual worker.  While Loman’s lonely life as a traveling salesman with frequent hotel stops away from home leads to his moral failure as a father, Faye mothers her skeleton crew like family, and in the face of the failure of cruel societal pressures, rises to her moral challenge like a warrior. She says: “Can’t define what a man is until he got to take action.” By her own measure, attention was finally paid, this time with dignity in the face of a capitalism that she knows “ain’t no democracy.”  

As the only Detroiter in the cast, Patricia R. Floyd’s face, as Faye is a symphony of emotions, sometimes cross or serious, sometimes playful and proud. Watching her dress and boogie her way into her work overalls is worth the price of admission. When Jonathan Louis Dent as Daz explodes with expletives his whole body punches like a prize fighter; when he becomes playful with slam-dunk motions he is dope with flirtatiousness. When reprimanded he stands like a soldier waiting for punishment. Toccarra Cash as Shanita, shushing the noise of factory and music to hear her baby’s future, can be as still as meditation itself, nervous like a ninny, and brisk in her rebuff of Daz’s advances. She may have never been pregnant, but she ambles and walk-rocks like a heavy-bellied lady who shushes the sound of the factory and music with her wish to hear her baby’s future. Maurice Emmanuel Parent plays the most serious Reggie with stiff-upper-lip heartbreak at the necessary requirements of his job; his last act smile and easy manner juxtapose to the helpless tension he carries in his body with conflicting loyalties to his family, Faye, and his management.

The main character, the insistently demanding factory itself, is played out in the stage set showing the macro world of the insistent assembly line ominously moving and rotating high above the micro break room set; its parts move between scenes to the hip hop beat of music, sometimes with appropriate lyrics and sometimes just with ongoing percussion, whose increasingly quick beat underlines the exposition, climax, and denouement of the story. Whereas other productions opted to employ a hip hop dancer doing techno moves to characterize the factory, this production wisely suggested the overpowering influence of societal’s economic dominance in worker’s lives by having the closed circuit rotation of parts overhead hovering like a dark cloud over us all. (Full disclosure: those are the very car doors that my husband polished on a Chrysler line. As a one-time Detroiter myself from working class roots and card-carrying union member, this all touched my memories quite deeply.)

Go see Skeleton Crew at the Calderwood Pavilion for insight into how we arrived at our present economic and political situation, where the interests of the 1% supersede the majority number of the rest of us. As someone from working-class parents, whose saw her parents’ friends  at the Ford factory rise to middle-class status, I found it heartening to see such strength in the midst of the creeping greed of today’s Robber Barons.

Skeleton Crew ran March 1-31 at the Huntington Theatre in Boston.