With all due respect to playwright Dominique Morisseau – recipient of the 2018 MacArthur Genius Grant, no less – she is no August Wilson, whose monumentally brilliant Pittsburgh Cycle of 10 dramas chronicles the black experience in America, one set during each decade of the 20th century, and two of which (“The Piano Lesson” and “Fences”) earned him Pulitzer Prizes.
The third in a trilogy of plays that comprise Morisseau’s Detroit Projects, “Skeleton Crew” is currently on stage at the Southwest Arts Center, courtesy of outgoing artistic director (and founder) Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre. The company previously mounted the second installment, “Detroit ’67,” in 2015, and incoming artistic director Jamil Jude has already announced plans to produce the first part of the series, “Paradise Blue,” next year.
“Skeleton Crew” takes place in the employee break room of an automobile manufacturing plant during the economic recession of 2008, where a microcosm of assembly-line African-American workers congregate to discuss and contemplate, among a certifiable checklist of other things, circulating rumors about the imminent closing of the factory.
Morisseau tends to lay things on with a rather heavy hand. Faye (Tonia Jackson), for instance, a labor union representative, is not only just a few months shy of collecting a 30-year pension; she’s also a cancer survivor and lesbian and secretly homeless, and she has a personal history with her supervisor, Reggie (Enoch King) – or, more specifically, with his late mother – that inevitably puts her in a compromising position as the plot thickens.
Reggie, meanwhile, is torn between a genuine concern for the welfare of his workers and his managerial obligations to tow the company line, to say nothing of his personal responsibilities to provide for his wife and children. In their shared moments together, estimable co-stars Jackson and King distinguish and elevate the show, as their characters navigate and negotiate between “fighting the system” and running the risk of “sabotaging” themselves.
In his finest scene, King delivers a stirring speech about “walking an invisible line” and looking as if he’s “disappearing from himself.” Later, when Reggie talks about blowing up and losing his cool with the big (presumably white) boss upstairs, some members of the opening-night audience took it as a hilarious anecdote. To the actor’s infinite credit, however, others likely appreciated the moment for what it truly was – profoundly moving.
With Jude at the helm of the occasionally sluggish show, rounding out True Colors’ four-member ensemble are relative newcomers Anthony Campbell and Asia Howard. He plays Dez, a misunderstood young man with dreams of opening an auto repair shop, and she’s Shanita, an expectant, single mother with certain prophetic dreams of her own. (And kudos to Bradley Bergeron, whose projection design suggests the plant’s larger workforce most effectively.)
Morisseau may not be another August Wilson – nor Jude another Tony Award-winning Kenny Leon, for that matter – but “Skeleton Crew” is not without its merits, either. Chief among them are a pair of powerhouse performances by Jackson and King that deserve to be seen.
Through March 10. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays (excluding March 1); 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; 11 a.m. Wednesdays (Feb. 20 and March 6 only); 11 a.m. Friday (March 1 only). $15-$40. Southwest Arts Center, 915 New Hope Road, Atlanta. 1-877-725-8849. truecolorstheatre.org.
Bottom line: At times heavy-handed and meandering, but the actors work hard to keep it on track.
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