Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham

Skeleton Crew
PlayMakers Repertory Company
Review by Garrett Southerland

Alex Givens, Shanelle Nicole Leonard,
and Kathryn Hunter-Williams

Photo by HuthPhoto
What truly is human nature? If our livelihood was on the line, would we push each other down to survive ourselves, or would we join together in hopes of saving everyone? Recent MacArthur Fellowship recipient Dominique Morisseau takes up this question with her play Skeleton Crew, produced by PlayMakers Repertory Company at the Paul Green Theatre at the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art through October 28.

Though answers may not be clear or easy, Skeleton Crew explores how this question of human nature played out in Detroit, Michigan, a former industrial boomtown stripped to its bare bones. Ms. Morisseau has found enough inspiration in her hometown for this to be the third play in a trilogy, known as The Detroit Projects. While the first two plays in that trilogy are set further in the past, Skeleton Crew is close enough to feel like the present: 2008 and the last stages of the collapse of the auto industry there.

In an auto parts stamping plant that has been downsized to the absolute minimum for operation (a skeleton crew), among those who still have a job is Dez (Alex Givens), who has aspirations of opening up his own business. Late in her first pregnancy, Shanita (Shanelle Nicole Leonard) attempts to hang on to normalcy and desperately views her work in the plant not just as a job but as a career. The matriarch of the group, Faye (Kathryn Hunter-Williams), has been at the plant the longest and is approaching the date when she can retire with full benefits. Their line manager Reggie (Samuel Ray Gates) came from blue-collar beginnings himself and still can empathize easily with the plight of his direct reports as he learns the plant's fate. This scenario is all too familiar; most of us know personal stories of downsizing and cutbacks, and these four flawed yet sympathetic characters feel both current and universal. But while the play builds to an intriguing climax, its resolution may not provide the answers expected nor do its characters justice.

Alex Givens gives a complex and formidable portrayal of Dez, a young black man who knows the deck is stacked against him. As Shanita, Shanelle Nicole Leonard takes advantage of every moment on stage, providing some wryly comedic moments in a rather somber play. The play rests on the shoulders of Faye, and PlayMakers regular Kathryn Hunter-Williams gives authenticity to a character who is hard as nails yet deeply sensitive to the needs of those around her. Ms. Hunter-Williams has portrayed a wide gamut of roles for PlayMakers, but this is a true standout performance for her.

Directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton in her PlayMakers debut, the production boasts quality creative talent. Scenic design by Jan Chambers eerily yet beautifully captures the disintegration that has gradually overtaken the plant, eating away at the floor and exterior until soon there will be nothing left. Steel beams above and the large broken industrial windows in the background remind the audience of this plant's former monumental greatness. Dominic Abbenante's video design effectively fills the breaks between scenes with similarly imposing images of gears in a machine and the monotonous movements of faceless factory workers.

Storytellers have created drama around labor unions since the Industrial Revolution. And while we are in a better place (at least at the moment) than the Great Recession of 2008, the greater question of who to help—ourselves or others—never goes away. Skeleton Crew doesn't shy away from the complexities of human nature, even if it comes to a slightly too tidy conclusion.

Skeleton Crew, through October 28, 2018, by PlayMakers Repertory Company at the Paul Green Theatre at the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill NC. Tickets can be purchased online at or by phone at 919-962-7529.

Playwright: Dominique Morisseau
Director: Valerie Curtis-Newton
Scenic Design: Jan Chambers
Costume Design: Junghyun Georgia Lee
Lighting Design: Porsche McGovern
Sound Design: Gabriel Clausen
Projection Design: Dominic Abbenante

Cast (In alphabetical order):
Reggie: Samuel Ray Gates
Dez: Alex Givens
Faye: Kathryn Hunter-Williams
Shanita: Shanelle Nicole Leonard