It’s 2008, the height of the Great Recession. The auto industry is devastated. While CEOs and corporate boards attempt to keep their companies afloat, workers down on the line in Detroit wonder how much longer they’ll be able to put food on the table.
That’s the setting for Skeleton Crew, the play by Dominique Morriseau making its Wisconsin debut to open Forward Theater Company’s tenth anniversary season on Friday.
“She’s becoming one of the top playwrights right now in the country,” says Milwaukee-based actor DiMonte Henning, who is one of the four cast members in Forward Theater’s production. “The story is definitely relatable. It’s stripped down so many layers of just the human condition. What do people do when you’re faced with this enormous challenge? This challenge of your livelihood is at stake? And I think that, at some point, in everyone’s life, we all can relate to that, or we know somebody who can relate to that. I think that’s why people are drawn to it.”
The entire play takes place in the break room at an auto-pressing factory in Detroit. The story involves Faye, who’s been working at the plant for 29 years; Shanita, who’s expecting a baby soon; Dez, who has dreams of opening his own garage; and foreman Reggie, played by Henning.
“He is really stuck in the middle,” Henning says. “It’s like his loyalty to his work family, who he’s known forever. Specifically, Faye, who is one of the closest people in the plant. Or, does he stick to his upper management family? Does he look out for them and do what they tell him to do? So, it’s right in the middle.
“Reggie’s supposed to be, like, 38,” says Henning, who is just 25. “But that’s why we call it acting,” he adds with a laugh.
Henning says the story is relevant and relatable even ten years later.
“It’s still relevant. It’s still happening,” he says. “The economy goes up and down. I know a lot of people were definitely affected by that Oscar Meyer plant being closed (in Madison last year).”
It’s also an important play because of the cast of characters it depicts.
“Another reason why I’m excited about (Skeleton Crew) is because it’s a story that has an all-black cast,” Henning says. “It’s representation. We don’t see that as much and I’m very excited that Forward Theater is doing that.”
Henning says there’s not necessarily any more need for such representation now than in the past.
“I think it’s always important because our stories matter just as any other stories,” he says.
Morriseau, a Detroit native, is among the hottest playwrights working today. Skeleton Crew is the third play in what she calls The Detroit Project, which also includes Detroit ‘67 and Paradise Blue. She has drawn favorable comparisons to the legendary playwright August Wilson, whose Pittsburgh Cycle includes the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fences. Morrisseau got her start as a performance poet, which is reflected in the lyrical style of her plays.
“Her writing is very poetic. It flows,” Henning says. “You, as an actor, you know when (your lines) are not right because it just doesn’t sound right. You know the rhythm is not there. She’s a very rhythmic writer.”
Henning hopes it’ll be a night of education as well as entertainment.
“I think that people will learn empathy for these characters,” he says. “I really feel that way because for ma as a reader when I first read it, I just kept thinking, oh what’s gonna happen, what are they gonna do, how are they gonna face these challenges that they’re faced with. So, I hope that people will learn empathy. I hope that people will take away just the amount of compassion that these characters have for one another, and just enjoy a good evening of theater by a new emerging playwright named Dominique Morisseau who is definitely on the rise.”
Skeleton Crew opens Friday night and will run through September 23 at The Playhouse inside Overture Center for the Arts in downtown Madison. Tickets are $20-$49 and are available at the Overture Center ticket office or overture.org.