Out of the Ashes

By Adam Versényi, Dramaturg

The flag of Detroit. The two Latin mottos read 'Speramus Meliora' and 'Resurget Cineribus', meaning 'We hope for better things' and 'It will rise from the ashes,'written by Gabriel Richard after the fire of 1805. The seal is a representation of the Detroit fire which occurred on June 11, 1805. The fire caused the entire city to burn with only one building saved from the flames. The figure on the left weeps over the destruction while the figure on the right gestures to the new city that will rise in its place. Detroit, 2008. What was once the fourth-largest city in the United States and an industrial powerhouse has become a microcosm of the various threats to economic security and prosperity facing the nation. As Lehman Brothers is allowed to fail and millions of U.S. citizens find themselves with underwater mortgages, Detroit’s municipal bond rating slides into junk bond territory, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick pleads guilty to obstruction of justice charges and leaves office, factories close, and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney publishes an op-ed in the New York Times arguing against a federal bailout of the auto industry. Between 2000-2011 the city loses 25% of its population resulting, in a population that also sinks under the tax base of 750,000. In 2009 General Motors and Chrysler declare bankruptcy and are bailed out by the Obama administration. In 2013 Detroit’s state-appointed emergency manager Kevyn Orr files for bankruptcy on behalf of the city, marking the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in U.S. history.

This is the backdrop against which Dominique Morisseau sets her play, Skeleton Crew. Taking place in an auto parts stamping plant in Detroit in 2008, Skeleton Crew spotlights the choices its characters make in the face of both the city and the nation’s economic decline. Amidst the constant noise, grit, dust, and cold temperatures of the stamping plant, Morisseau’s four characters experience how the machine grinds them down to the bone and search for their own individual means of avoiding it biting into the marrow. Amidst constant plant closures and layoffs of the remaining workforce, this skeleton crew tries to hold the line and avoid becoming part of a graveyard of bones composed of the remains of an extinct species.

Skeleton Crew investigates how a workplace family or tribe demonstrates its humanity, climbing over each other to get ahead like crabs in a bucket, or joining together for the sake of the entire colony like ants climbing a tree? Amidst the ghosts of people and things stripped away by the auto industry’s decline and constant union concessions, Morisseau examines the different coping mechanisms used by Faye, Dez, Shanita and Reggie to maintain a semblance of self and a sense of integrity when societal and economic forces seem arrayed against them. What is the best strategy for advancement? Does it involve stepping on your co-worker’s hand, or grasping it so you both can be pulled up? How does the constant rhythm of the factory line affect, influence, or drive the daily lives of those who work it? The various answers the play provides are generational, personal, and situational. They explore different possible meanings of labor—laboring to build something, laboring to tear something down, solitary vs. communal labor, laboring to give birth or ring the death knoll, laboring for change or to maintain the status quo.

Ten years after the Great Recession of 2008, Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew has too many resonances in 2018 as wages stagnate, income inequality grows, and social cohesion seems to fracture. Theatrically, Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew poses crucial questions through the lives of the play’s characters. Is this the darkness before the light, or will only their skeletons remain?