I haven’t quite untangled why I didn’t feel deeply involved through the first act of Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, now receiving a regional premiere at Curious Theatre Company. Perhaps some of the actors hadn’t settled fully into their roles, or the set was too spacious — with a cast of four, physical closeness might have added intensity. Did donnie I. betts’s direction lack the requisite energy? Did Morisseau’s rather quiet script, which focuses more on character than action, need more urgency, more forward propulsion? I did note that the blackouts between scenes during which a figure or two would move around the stage setting props in place lasted a little too long.
I wasn’t alone: Returning to the auditorium after the first act, I noticed a few empty seats.
Which was a damn shame, because in the second act everything about this production clicks into place: acting, direction and script. All the seeds of ideas and emotion planted in the first act spring to life, and the result is electrifying.
Long before the Trump presidency woke up much of the electorate, at a time when it was considered crass and decidedly inartistic for a theater to focus on politics, Curious artistic director Chip Walton made it his mission to mount politically significant work and take on inequality, racism and injustice. Skeleton Crew is the third work by Morisseau in a trilogy set in Detroit that deals with the realities of black life during periods of significant upheaval. Curious mounted a moving production of the playwright’s Detroit ’67 last year, and it’s a pleasure to hear her authorial voice again.
Skeleton Crew is set in the break room of an auto-stamping plant. It takes place in 2008, a time of catastrophe for the auto industry, when factories were closing and nobody’s job was safe. Given the setting and content, it’s impossible not to remember the richly textured work of August Wilson, the profound currents, the way the music of his language created a shifting, swelling ocean of meaning. But that's also unfair. Morisseau’s work stands on its own — less grand and universal, more down to earth and touching, and also more revealing of a woman’s perspective.
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Union leader Faye, the heart of Skeleton Crew, is one of the most memorable theatrical characters I’ve seen, with her fantasies of life as a beach bum, memories of a lost onetime love, and stubborn refusal to stop smoking despite having survived breast cancer. Having lost her house because she gambles, she sleeps in her car — and sometimes, when the nights are bitter, in the break room. But this is a woman who refuses to be helped, no matter how much others want to help her, displaying a mix of vulnerability, bravado and prickly defiance. It doesn’t hurt that actor Perri Gaffney inhabits the role with stunning power and honesty. The other woman in the cast is not as deeply limned but is equally interesting. Shanita loves her work, is a perfectionist in everything she does, and fantasizes about the people who will own the cars she helps put together. She is also single and pregnant. Kristina Fountaine is an appealing Shanita, who gets more and more hormonal — as well as assertive and passionate — as her pregnancy progresses.
As for the two male characters, Quinn Marchman’s Dez is an affable trickster who has us wondering just why he carries a gun and what he might be capable of. Any regular Denver theater-goer will recognize Cajardo Lindsey, who makes manager Reggie awkwardly inexperienced and far too young to deal with the terrible responsibility he bears for the lives of the others. He knows they’re about to lose their jobs, and he confides this to Faye, begging her to keep the secret until he can figure out how best to manage the separation. Lindsey is a versatile actor: His effectively bumbling Reggie is a far cry from the powerful Ogun he played in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size at Curious in 2013 and again in 2015.
Illustrating the uncertainties of working people’s lives and the dangers that many black people face on the streets, Skeleton Crew does honor to Curious’s core mission. But it’s never didactic. The play offers humor and warmth, as well as a glimpse into the lives of a group of people — none of them entirely blameless, and all of them at the mercy of a world that sees them only as cogs in the machine.
Skeleton Crew, presented by Curious Theatre Company through April 13, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, curioustheatre.org.