Degenerate. When a white professor at Dominique Morisseau’s alma mater asked the almost entirely white class, “what do you think of when you hear about Detroit,” someone yelled out, “degenerate.” This exchange happened in Morisseau’s boyfriend’s (now husband) class, and she says that when her husband told her someone had equated Detroit with the word degenerate, “I felt like he had just slapped me.” Morisseau returns to this story as an explanation and moment of passionate inspiration for her Detroit Cycle adding, “I [wrote] three plays about Detroit because I love Detroiters, because I love my family, and because I am practicing self-love.” And the love that Morisseau has for her hometown shines fiercely and brightly in her new play Skeleton Crew.

Likened by The New York Times to “Clifford Odets’ dramas,” “the great Pittsburgh cycle of August Wilson,” and of being “squarely in the tradition of Arthur Miller,” Skeleton Crew is set in the breakroom of a Detroit automobile factory. Inside this breakroom, Morisseau carefully explores the capacity for altruistic love during stressful and “between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place” situations. Because of this premise, the stakes in Skeleton Crew are high, but Morisseau’s smart writing ensures the play never veers into melodrama, giving Skeleton Crew the benefit of truthful, unaffected storytelling.

To counter cultural bias against Detroit, Morisseau is drawn to telling stories that explore the humanity of Detroiters through a mix of humor and genuine warmth. Skeleton Crew comes together through a mix of dramatic fictionalization, historical research, and interviews with Morisseau’s family and fellow Detroiters, who as Morisseau puts them “have been some of the kindest, most progressive, most ambitious, most brave, most conscious, most loving, most hardworking people I have ever known.” In Skeleton Crew, she gives names to these traits and expertly weaves in the spirit of the wider Detroit community onto her stages.

As a playwright Morisseau is committed to writing plays about people on the fringe of theatre’s usual subjects and audience. She’s also interested in creating exciting roles and characters she’s yet to see on stage and says, “I [write] plays that I [think] should be written, but also plays I [think] actors should be acting in.” Skeleton Crew has four roles “actors should be acting in:” There’s Faye, an older woman a year away from earning sizable retirement benefits; Reggie, the working-class-turned-white-collar factory foreman, who’s working toward providing the best life for his family without letting his factory’s workers fall to the wayside while doing so; Shanita, a pregnant young woman who’s proud of her job and loves her work; and Dez, a young man trying to save enough money to open his own auto garage.

Morisseau’s characterization and writing of these four characters in Skeleton Crew is so compassionate and free of cliché that it will be hard to leave the theatre without feeling for and appreciating the makeshift factory family by the time the curtain falls. Morisseau cares about the characters — “these are the people I love” — and more importantly, the characters in Skeleton Crew care for each other. It’s this care that keeps the play from ever becoming depressing or bleak; instead it keeps Detroit’s humanity, resilience, and hope at its dramatic core.

This is not a play about degenerates. Skeleton Crew is a play about challenging expectations, written because Morisseau believes, “that what goes into print and what is said over and over about a people starts to become the gospel until it is just as diligently combated with other stories and other perspectives.” So let it be said: Skeleton Crew is a play set in a city of kind, progressive, ambitious, brave, conscious, loving, hardworking people; a play that combats unintentional ignorance and apathy with warm-blooded stories and diverse perspectives; and a play that is well on track to becoming theatre gospel.


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