Whenever playwright Dominique Morisseau travels back to Detroit to visit family and friends, she takes painful stock of her hometown, a city deeply scarred by factory closings, recession, and a housing and foreclosure crisis.
“As we’d get closer to the middle-class neighborhood where my parents have lived all my life, once mostly inhabited by teachers and auto factory workers, I would see more and more of these boarded up and abandoned homes, and some houses totally gone,” she says over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. “I’d be like, ‘Oh my God, this is a block where my piano teacher lived, or this is the block where my aunt lived.’ It was just so painful to witness these neighborhoods transformed in such a stark way.
“The question was personal for me,” she says. “How did this economic and social destruction happen to my city?”
That query led Morisseau to conceive what she’s dubbed her “Detroit Project” trilogy, modeled after August Wilson’s “Century Cycle.” The third play in that trio, “Skeleton Crew,” set in 2008 and centered on four workers inside the city’s last small auto plant still in operation, premieres in Boston beginning Friday at the Calderwood Pavilion. Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company, it’s the third most-widely produced play of the 2017-18 season at regional theaters nationwide, according to American Theatre magazine.
The other plays in Morisseau’s trilogy are “Detroit ’67,” set at the time of the 1967 riots, and “Paradise Blue,” which examines the first wave of gentrification to reach Detroit in the late ’40s. (The latter premiered at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2015 and opens off-Broadway this spring.)
With “Skeleton Crew” Morisseau wanted to explore the decline of the American manufacturing sector through the story of an auto factory and the blue-collar denizens who toil there. Like most people from the Motor City, she has many family members who’ve worked in auto plants, including a grandfather, uncles, aunts, and cousins.
Set in the break room of a small stamping plant facing tough times, the play centers on four characters and the collision of their hopes, dreams, and fears as they await their fates. With the economy sputtering and layoffs at other small factories mounting, are they next? Are the rumors true that the plant could close?
Shanita (Toccarra Cash), a single-mom-to-be, is a hard-working second-generation assembly line worker trying to save up so she can support her first child. Dez (Jonathan Louis Dent), who flirtatiously tries to woo Shanita every time she walks in the room, dreams of opening his own garage, but keeps making bad choices and clashing with his boss Reggie (Maurice Emmanuel Parent), the factory foreman. Reggie has a family to support and kids to send to college, but feels torn between obligations to management and the workers he once toiled on the line with.
All three characters have a special bond with Faye (Patricia R. Floyd), a matriarchal figure in her mid-50s and the consummate survivor. A tough-talking union representative, she has worked at the plant for nearly 30 years and is hiding some big secrets.
“There’s questions of survival and questions of responsibility and solidarity,” says Floyd, after a rehearsal. “Can you satisfy and do right by yourself and others at the same time? When does self-preservation trump your responsibility to the collective? Does it ever?”
Cash grew up in Dayton, Ohio, where several family members worked for the local General Motors assembly plant that closed in 2008, so she says the play hits extremely close to home. “With a different stroke of fate, I could have been Shanita,” Cash says.
A key inspiration for the character of Faye — and the play itself — can be traced to an encounter Morisseau and her husband had while visiting Detroit for a wedding. As they were on their way into the reception, they spotted a woman sitting in her car, which appeared to be piled with all of her possessions. After they left the reception hours later, the woman was still there. Concerned, they approached and asked if she was OK or needed some help. She told them she’d just fallen on some tough times but insisted she’d be fine and was going to make it.
After giving her some money and leaving the scene in tears, Morisseau wondered: How did we go from a city of people who make cars to a city of people living in their cars? “It felt like a great injustice had been done,” she says.
Indeed, “Skeleton Crew” interrogates the notion of the American Dream that’s become embedded in the nation’s sense of self. “Everybody’s got a vision of what they want their future to look like,” Morisseau says. “But it doesn’t seem like everyone has access to the tools that will let them make that happen or to the parts of society that will let them support that dream.”
‘It doesn’t seem like everyone has access to the tools that will let them make [their dream] happen.’
The play has particular resonance for Floyd, a born-and-bred Detroiter whose grandfather was the United Auto Workers union rep, just like Faye, at the shop where he worked. On one of her trips back home during the recession, when news reports about Detroit had become increasingly grim, “I was expecting there to be like this big crater where the city used to be,” Floyd recalls. “But driving from the airport in my rental car, I realized that even though it’s gritty and it’s hard, there’s something so poetic about the city and its people. They’re so resilient.”
Indeed, Detroit, like New Orleans, holds a certain sway in the American imagination, because of its rich history, dramatic ups-and-downs, and perseverance in the face of great adversity. “It’s experienced the best and the worst of everything that we’ve gone through as a nation,” says the play’s director, Megan Sandberg-Zakian.
So when the system breaks down or gets dismantled, what happens to the people who are at its mercy? “I think the play comes down on the side that people working together as a community can survive the breakdown of the machine,” Sandberg-Zakian says.
“The play’s true antagonists are entities beyond the characters,” explains Morisseau. “And it takes collective individual power to be able to survive the impact of those powerful entities. We’re quite divided right now as a nation, and I think that’s because of short-sightedness about our collective power.”
Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company. At the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, March 2-31. Tickets from $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.orgChristopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.