2 men talking

Photo Credit: Melissa Zeph
Moses T. Alexander Greene and Malcolm Green as Reggie and Dez, in Justice Theater Project’s Skeleton Crew

RALEIGH, NC – Automotive assembly line workers in Detroit qualified as a new endangered species in 2008, as the industry was imploding at the dawn of the Great Recession. As we get to know the four indelible characters in The Justice Theater Project’s moving production of Skeleton Crew, young line workers Des and Shanita, and Faye, the seasoned (and, by now, well-weathered) union rep, are all everyday people, organic characters who have sprung up from the rough districts of the city’s East side. Even if Reggie has risen – marginally – into the lowest ranks of company management, this quartet is clearly from the same neighborhood, and it faces a common and existential threat: their stamping plant’s impending closure as the industry consolidates and retreats.

But in MacArthur Foundation fellow Dominique Morisseau’s gritty 2017 drama, that peril shatters whatever unity a union might once have fostered. Too young to remember the struggles that necessitated the strikes of yesteryear, the brittle, sharp-tongued Dez (given an impressive, taut reading by Malcolm Green) has reason to interrogate everyone’s motives and guard his dreams of owning his own auto shop. There’s poignancy in the loyalty that Shanita, a pregnant single woman in her 20s (Camryn Sherer, in a glowing performance), feels for the work. “I love the way the line needs me,” she says. At one point she rhapsodizes about a car she helps assemble: “It’s got a motor in it and it’s gonna take somebody somewhere.” Whether the company will ultimately reciprocate that loyalty and take Shanita anywhere remains an open question throughout.

Photo Credit: Melissa Zeph
Kalimah Williams as Faye, in Justice Theater Project’s Skeleton Crew.

But under Dr. Nadia Bodie-Smith’s insightful direction, actor Kalimah Williams’ solid work as Faye, a hard-nosed veteran of 29 years, anchors this production as a robust, elder lesbian who takes no mess from recalcitrant young ones, while trying to mentor, counsel, and protect them all through the corporate storm that is coming.

And that will be a difficult task, since Faye’s legacy here includes Reggie (Moses T. Alexander Greene), a line manager who she helped get his first job. Reggie calls on that relationship when he first discloses to her that the plant is going to be closed – and asks her to keep it a secret, for now: “I’m gonna work hard to get us outta here with somethin’ we can exhale into,” he begs.

But as Faye gives him time to negotiate an exit strategy, tensions rise as news breaks of other plant closings, and on-site thefts cause plant management to crack down on discipline. Finally, she lays her cards out: “I know you’re thinking, Reggie. But come to a conclusion real soon, you hear me? Otherwise, I’m going to come to one first.”

Morisseau deftly depicts how the culture of the time is pressurizing, as increases in unemployment and financial instability inexorably lead to rises in theft and violent crime. “Everybody packin’ something these days,” Faye observes, while Dex keeps a gun that’s contraband on the company’s property. Near the end of his rope, Reggie confesses in a late-night conversation, “I don’t know the fear that’s come over all of us lately. You walk around with your manhood on the line because you never know who’s going to try to take it from you.”

At another point, Shanita gently observes that Dez seems like he’s sabotaging himself with the pressures he’s under. “I’m protecting myself,” he says. When Shanita asks, “From who?” He yells, “EVERYBODY!”

In this pressure cooker, Morisseau and Bodie-Smith know, something’s got to give when folks are forced to play a real-world game of lifeboat and choose the lines they cross and the ones that hold between their loyalties, their families, friends and union fellows, and their ethics.

The result is an authentic, suspenseful drama, one which asks each character – and all of us, as spectators, as well – the pointed question once posed by Florence Patton Reece: “Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on?”

Skeleton Crew continues through Sunday, February 25. To see more, go to our calendar here.