From the lines spoken between the Motown harmonies of The Temptations in Ain't Too Proud to the dissonant squeal of an auto factory coming to a screeching halt in Skeleton Crew, playwright Dominique Morisseau is bringing the sounds and stories of her native Detroit to Broadway.
Skeleton Crew is the final play in Morisseau's The Detroit Project, a three-play cycle set in her home city. Detroit '67 premiered at The Public in 2013, followed by Paradise Blue at Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2015, then Skeleton Crew at Atlantic Theatre Company in 2016 and now on Broadway with Manhattan Theatre Club. It was The Detroit Project that got the attention of producers looking for a librettist for Ain't Too Proud.
"I grew up on The Temptations' music. They're my parents' favorite group. So, it was second nature to write their story. I already know their story well. Every Detroiter does."
The sounds of Detroit are integral part of Skeleton Crew, too, using Detroit's more modern hip-hop rhythms to enhance the story of a stamping plant faced with closure. Morisseau's musician husband Jimmy Keys, also a Detroit native, provides original music and lyrics for the production. "Jimmy has the ear to the city," she says.
A city hit hard by the pandemic. Skeleton Crew was written to shine a light on the workers of Detroit following the 2008 economic recession, but now the play taps into a new relevancy. "Detroit is a city full of essential workers," says Morisseau, who personally, along with her city experienced a lot of loss during these last 20 months. "The people who suffered the most are the people that work in factories, warehouses...working at a low minimum wage and not getting sick pay...and the most highly exposed to COVID."
"Skeleton Crew is looking at the fragility of the working class—how a company will treat them like they are expendable, but how workers have the power to fight against that," says Morisseau. "Everybody's labor matters." At its heart, the play is about who is fighting for you, who is keeping you safe.
The last note that rings through Skeleton Crew, though, is one of hope. "I don't think I'm a happy ending person, but I don't think I'm a sad ending person either. I'm a hope ending person. And hope isn't always on the back of joy. Sometimes hope comes from tragedy or devastation."
Skeleton Crew plays through February 20 at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman.