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Theater Review: “Skeleton Crew”

Amari Cheatom as Dez and Tonye Patano as Faye in Dominique in "Skeleton Crew."
Photo credit:
Jim Cox

There’s a certain poetry to the regular sounds of an auto assembly line, one that is reflected in the speech of the characters who work the line in Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew,” the third play in her trilogy about Detroit.

We meet four of the black workers in the break room of “the last small factory standing” in the Detroit of recession year 2008. It’s a shabby room, with a tired couch, a small table and chairs, a fridge and a coffee machine that looks like it’s seen better days.

It’s here that Faye, Dez, and Shanita come to relax on breaks, play cards and indulge in water-cooler conversation.

They’re not supposed to smoke (there are “no smoking” signs around, with Faye’s name written in since she’s the only one), but the joint smells like stale smoke. gambling is also verboten, but that commonly happens as well.

There is always gossip about firings or plant closings.

The Old Globe and Moxie Theatres, under the direction of Moxie’s Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, co-present “Skeleton Crew” through May 7 in the round on the White Theatre stage.

Faye (Tonye Patano) is the elder stateswoman of the group. She’s a lesbian and the union rep. A cancer survivor with 29 years in, she just needs to make it through the year to retirement.

Shanita (Rachel Nicks), pregnant and in her 20s, takes pride in her work and eagerly awaits the birth of her baby, though isn’t sure how she will solve the problem of finances after the birth.

Dez (Amari Cheatom), in his 20s, has plans to open a car repair shop of his own. He’s found the place but needs a little more overtime to make his dream come true. His amusing flirtation attempts with Shanita are often met with smart-ass comments (“What am I, your default hottie?” she asks.) 

Reggie (Brian Marable), in his late 30s, started on the line but has made it upstairs to first-level management as shop foreman. He now has to balance his  identification with the workers and his new management responsibilities. He has some history with Faye.

The daily banter is of mild interest, but the drama isn’t about whether Faye smokes or Dez packs heat. It’s that these deeply ethical workers – not so different from August Wilson’s characters in Pittsburgh – are pawns of an economic system they cannot control.  

Faye, as union rep, gets the word from Reggie, but must promise not to tell the workers until it’s officially announced, putting her in an extremely difficult position.

How do you deal with people – friends – whose fate you know but cannot divulge?

Under Sonnenberg’s taut direction, these characters talk a better game than they can play, and it’s almost painful watching their fates play out. Patano’s Faye is tired and unwell, but still tries to protect her union members. 

Watch for Nicks’ Shanita and her heart-breaking dialogue about why she clings to this job though she’s been offered another one at a copy shop. 

Cheatom’s Dez is amusing in his interactions with Shanita, still determined to make his dream come true, no matter what. 

Marable’s Reggie does his best to walk that worker/management line without hurting his old line buddies, but finds it more and more difficult.

Faye speaks for all the workers during this recession when she says to Reggie, “I’m not asking you to make up happy endings. All I’m asking is that you tell ’em they can’t write us off.”

The details

“Skeleton Crew” plays through May 7, 2017 at The Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre,1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m.; Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m.

Tickets: (619) 234-5623 or theoldglobe.org