Monday, May 30, 2016

Motor dreams

Dominique Morisseau has nailed the rhythms of working people at a dying auto plant in her play Skeleton Crew at the Atlantic Theater Company, now in its second run through June 19.

It's a landscape I walked from 1990 to 1991 at the old General Motors Scarborough Van Plant on the outskirts of Toronto, chronicled in Life on the Line:One Woman's Tale of Work, Sweat and Survival.

The van plant closed in the early 1990s recession; Morisseau's unnamed metal stamping plant, an auto manufacturing supplier, is about to become a victim of the 2008 economic collapse.

Our stories were about the people who labored like and with machines, who hung on to a middle-class existence through well-paid union labor, who were sometimes victimized by management and union alike, facing an uncertain future with equal parts dread and courage.

It's a testament to Skeleton Crew's skillful director, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, that one always gets the sense of many more people at the plant behind the four characters who meet in the break room -- tough, middle-aged Faye (Lynda Gravatt); young, volatile Dez (Jason Dirden); pregnant Shanita (Nikiya Mathis); supervisor Reggie (Wendell B. Franklin).
The "crew": from left, Dez (Jason Dirden), Faye (Lynda Gravatt), Shanita (Nikiya Mathis).
I often thought of how the workers and machines performed an intricate ballet every day amidst the crashing sounds of robot welders, the metallic creaks of the drag chain pulling the van bodies through the plant, the sharp pffts of pneumatic tools and skrees of drills.

Skeleton Crew's scenes are effectively punctuated by Robert Kaplowitz's mechanized music and the jerky dances choreographed and performed by Adesola Osakalumi, seen in half-light.

Although the situations were similar, my story took place in a diverse, but mostly white, community, while Morisseau is chronicling the decline of the mostly-black Motor City, in this third of a Detroit trilogy.

She skillfully paints her characters with a broad brush in the play's first half, so we get comfortable with gruff Faye, who insists on smoking despite the sign reading "No Smoking FAYE." Sweet and sassy Shanita fends off Dez' constant advances. By-the-book Reggie puts up more signs (No Gambling Dez This Means You) in vain attempts at control.

In the second half, the characters' rough poetry soars and these excellent actors give us the depths of their rage and pride. Dez, who uneasily packs a gun in his backpack, questions economic morality - "Is there zero tolerance for criminal activity upstairs or does that road only go one way?"

Reggie, pulled between his rise from the assembly line and his bosses upstairs, desperately wants to hang to a house and college savings for his daughter. "I need my job just like everybody else and I don't have the union to protect me," he tells Faye, the union rep, as he confides in her that the plant is doomed.

Shanita expresses something I heard many times, which may be counter-intuitive for people who are used to the white collar life in an office - pride in working a manual job at an auto factory. Facing the rumor of the plant closing, she has a job offer (at much less pay) at a copy center. At the plant, "I feel like I'm building something important, that's got a motor to take someone somewhere," and her success there has made her father, a former line worker, proud.

Faye reigns as the moral center of the play as we learn, from a heart-wrenching speech, that with "cancer treatments kicking my ass," she's lost her house to foreclosure and has been living out of her car or actually sleeping in the break room. Is this possible in America, even with union-negotiated medical benefits and salary? Yes, it is.

After 29 years, Faye feels as if she is as much a part of the plant as the couch mended with duct tape and the OSHA posters. "I can see through lockers. I know everything about this place. The walls talk to me. The dust on the floors write me messages."

The dust, chipped paint and dirty fluorescent light fixtures are expertly rendered in Michael Carnahan's set, with appropriately harsh lighting by Rui Rita. Projections between scenes, including Detroit's magnificently ruined Michigan Central Station, are by Nicholas Hussong.

"Tell 'em they can't write us off," Faye asks Reggie. That was the inspiration behind Life on the Line as well as Skeleton Crew: these people matter and they deserve to be heard.