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"IS A FACTORY. IT CAN HURT": THE HISTORY OF DETROIT’S AUTO INDUSTRY

“Is a factory / It can hurt / Hold your hand out / Give a shout / Breathe”– Sampled Lyrics in J Dilla’s “The Factory”

The beginning of Skeleton Crew calls for the sounds of auto plant machinery and Detroit artist J Dilla’s hip-hop. The stage directions tell us that “machinery hum hums. J Dilla beats rock rock rock. They blend together until we are almost bopping our heads to it… a factory line hymn.” While the characters of Skeleton Crew are the lifeblood of the play, it’s the history of the Detroit automobile industry contrasted with a modern Detroit that provides the humming, rocking backdrop for the characters.

When we think of the auto industry of Detroit, many of us can immediately think of its peak: Henry Ford, the Model T, crowds of assembly line workers. For many of us, that’s about where the list ends. Before she wrote Skeleton Crew, that’s about where it ended for Dominique Morisseau, as well, and she says that “learning the world of the auto industry is like learning a part of Detroit that I never really knew. With [this play] I was like, let me figure this out.”

Positioned on a river between Lake Erie and Lake Huron, Detroit is a natural location for creating and exporting cars. Car manufacturers flocked to Detroit seeking the geographic advantages, but the factories needed workers, and manufacturers needed to give workers a reason to endure the often difficult and dangerous factory-line labor. By the mid-20th century, 15% of working Americans (a large chunk of them Detroiters) were auto industry employees.

This increasing number of workers in the largely unregulated auto industry created pressure. Workers wanted protection, healthcare, unemployment benefits, and retirement plans, but first they needed to unionize. Factory owners opposed unionization because they didn’t want to pay workers more when they were doing the same labor, and factory owners saw unionization efforts as a threat to efficiency. Tensions escalated into bloody violence, and factories hired private security officers to deal with union sympathizers and dissenters in their factories. Fortunately, the United Automobile Workers (UAW) eventually negotiated contracts with every major auto firm and secured the benefits that auto workers wanted and needed.

Although Skeleton Crew is set in 2008, years after the bloody battle for unionization, Morisseau decided to “reach out to UAW activists and watched documentaries” about the auto industry’s unionization era before writing the play. This union research most affected the character of Faye, a woman in her mid-to-late 50s who has been working at the factory for 29 years. Morisseau gives Faye a moment that melds the past with the present. Faye chastises one of the younger factory workers, Dez, for not being a part of the union or paying his dues and for disrespecting the people who fought hard for his right to unionize. And Faye has the authority andright to educate the younger generations.

Faye’s age puts her at a place where she saw Detroit go from the poster child for American industrial success and opportunity to a hotspot of urban distress. She was there when the auto industry of Detroit fell into freefall. She was there during the brief blip of an upswing in the 1990s. And she was there for return of the freefall.Her existence in the play blends the start of the industry’s recession with the recession of the play’s present.

And it’s precisely that blending of history with present-time thatmakes the play so successful. When the play begins, the autoindustry is in dire straits and the audience is seeing a group of people — threatened by unemployment — surviving in a small factory. Because it has become about survival; survival for oneself, for one’s family, one’s future, and for the industry. It’s become about surviving and preserving a rickety, rusty, but stubborn and important industry integral to Detroit’s history.

Through the writing of Skeleton Crew, Morriseau shows that you can appreciate the story of the play and the flesh and blood of its heart even if you only have the tiniest seed of familiarity with Detroit’s auto industry; “for the first time, I started writing [a play] before I finished all [of my] research. I thought, ‘I don’t know everything [about Detroit’s auto industry], but I know the story I want to tell.’” Sometimes an introduction to humming Detroit factory machines and bopping J Dilla hip-hop beats is all you really need to join inand experience the factory-line, human hymn that is Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew.

.– J. SEBASTIAN ALBERDI


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South End / Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA: 527 Tremont Street, Boston MA 02116
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