‘Skeleton Crew’ at Northlight Theatre examines layoffs of auto workers 

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ANJI WHITE, Bernard Gilbert, Jacqueline Williams and Kelvin Roston, Jr., discuss the fate of the auto plant. 

By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., Chicago Crusader

At the start of the Great Recession, rumors of impending closure surround one of the last auto plants in Detroit. The nation’s financial crisis gets personal as each of the workers confronts the life-altering choices they must make if their plant goes under, while the supervisor is torn between allegiances to his makeshift family of co-workers and management’s “cost-saving” demands. When pushed to the limits of survival, how far over the lines are people willing to cross?

KELVIN ROSTON, JR., as Reggie and actress Jacqueline Williams as Faye have a heated talk regarding her future. Faye and Reggie are long time friends, but work issues weigh heavily on both.

This third play in Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit trilogy, “Skeleton Crew” was named one of Time Magazine’s 10 Best Shows of the Year. And with that recognition, Morisseau has another winner in her body of work. This time the playwright, who is making her mark in the same manner as the late August Wilson, takes an intimate look into the lives of longtime workers and new dreamers, when they are threatened with uncertainty and unemployment

Along with the supervisor named Reggie, played by Kelvin Roston, Jr., there is Faye, played by the fantastic Jacqueline Williams; Shanita, played by Anji White and Dez, played by Bernard Gilbert. Faye is a 29-year employee of the plant who is hoping to see 30 years, so that she can retire in a righteous fashion. She is a breast cancer survivor who is in remission, but she has a gambling problem that finds her in unfortunate circumstances. Shanita is expecting her first child and has been working on the line for a few years. Dez has his own dreams of opening up a body repair shop. A thread that runs through all of the plant workers is their commitment to their job. They really believe in the mission of the auto plant, and the fact that the cars that they produce take people to jobs, to family outings, to the grocery store, to the doctor’s office—all daily tasks in which folks find their cars to be their lifeline.

Also, the workers share ties within their own families, because these jobs were a source of pride and boastful bragging within the Black community. Many Black auto workers in Detroit followed in other relatives’ footsteps.

Morisseau notes that while she was never an auto worker, she is from Detroit and this is the hardest play that she has written to date. “Almost everyone from Detroit has a relative or several who have worked in the auto industry. I’ve talked to many friends, acquaintances, experts, UAW activists, and I’ve listened to the different work that they do, plants they’ve worked at, years they’ve put in, etc. Many of these jobs have now been automated. Robots in place of humans. This play isn’t about the Big Three. It is about the small factories that made it possible for the Big Three to exist.”

“Skeleton Crew” is a great play, full of passion and layers upon layers of character development that endear audience members to their current plights and fragile futures. The set design is so spot on, as are the sound effects and the soundtrack.

It is directed by Ron OJ Parson and playing at Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., in Skokie until March 3. For information, visit www.northlight.org.

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