Held together by a “Skeleton Crew”

15 Jun

When I had menial summer jobs during college, going to a good film the night before could upend the tedium for the entire shift the next day, and thoughts, impressions, and analysis of the film and its elements swirled in my mind. One of the strongest memories of this was working in a library, where I was doomed to change the labels on the front of card catalogue drawers all day – unscrew, remove old label and mylar covering, insert new label and mylar covering, provide paper backing for thickness, rescrew the assembly on to the front of the drawer – for minimum wage (then $3.35/hour), when I chanced to see Paul Schrader’s brilliantly written film, already in revival, Blue Collar with Richard Pryor in perhaps his greatest dramatic performance. That film, about auto workers in Detroit, brought me a lot to think about for all the hours the very next day and I still remember how in my mind’s replay it made the time pass but also let me bear down on the themes raised by the film and think about the unavoidable conflicts, class-based as well as racial, inherent in industrial capitalism.

Last night I had the chance to see another scripted Detroit-auto worker story, this time the new play, Skeleton Crew, by the young playwright Dominique Morisseau, with whom I had been unfamiliar until now. For one thing, I’ll be keeping an eye out for her other work from now on. This is a play that, in capturing the precarious existence even of skilled, union workers in the contemporary American economy, gives me hope that our theatre still can take on significant economic and social issues with sophistication and empathy, that theatre can do so much more than entertain by showing us the fragile humanity caught up in our crumbling economy. Our safety net has been ripped to tatters, even among the most strongly protected union jobs. Far from the labor optimism of Clifford Odets we now feel as if we are watching the sun set on union protection, as individual self-preservation is pitted every day against collective solidarity, because advancement comes at a moral cost.  In this sense, Morisseau’s play evokes Arthur Miller’s tragedies of psycho-economic conflict (Death of a Salesman most famously, but even more strongly both The Price and All My Sons). The dialogue is both natural and naturalistic, and yet at times with a tone as precise and ringing as that of The Crucible.

I’ll leave it to Ben Brantley in his rave review to provide more plot background to the play. But in brief, in this four-character play each of the thoroughly drawn characters occupies a tenuous position in the work hierarchy of a Detroit auto plant in danger of shutting down, including the union rep and two others who work with her on the assembly line  and the supervisor, now management, who has risen up from the union ranks to a position, though teetering, in the middle-class. We learn early on – though not all the characters know – that the plant will close, and it is up to the supervisor to make recommendations about who will be fired in advance or laid off, who will be transferred to other plants, who gets a good severance package, while the union has to scrape and scramble to protect its dwindling and vulnerable workers. One of the workers just bought a house, one is a year away from  full retirement benefits, one is saving up to start a small business, and one is about to go out on maternity as a single mom.

The play is not just an indictment of our economic system – our economic collapse as a country when it comes to providing a decent standard of living to increasing numbers of people (collapsing faster than Europe) – but also an inquiry into what happens to people morally when they get close to the line that separates management from workers, and those who think they can become secure from those who see themselves sliding into peril. We all have enough personal flaws and financial soft spots (e.g. cancer) to bring us down.  But the question remains whether the moral response in enough to offset the effects of an amoral economic system. Still, nothing in the play is contrived, there are no devices to move the plot forward, no sudden second-act revelation of secrets that forever changes the characters and the way we understand the play.  Life plays itself out without, as Brantley observes, melodrama. All of us who have worked in an office setting know the complicated ways that office mates get to know each another with a special kind of intimacy , as friends and sometimes not as friends even though we can spend as much awake time with them as we do with family.  The nature of the work relationship is different from worker and class solidarity – it is more complex, even in union shops (which I now know, working for the first time in my career in a unionized position). Friendship, comradeship, power plays, conflicts are all there, and we come to care about one another because of our frequent and purposeful contact.

This is highly engaged and perceptive theatre. What it offers over film is the intimacy of getting to know four complex and multidimensional characters by being physically close enough to touch them. And in so doing, and in seeing them in the flesh, as opposed to a two-dimensional screen, we can identify with their pain and anxiety, as (if) we come to know them. The actors have to become the people such that not one sentence can sound written.  The repartee, the comebacks, the conflicts must remain spontaneous.

Yet at the same time, there is the paradox – external to the play itself – that people who share the background and social status of the characters could not afford to see this production, even at off-Broadway prices. For that reason (among the demands of real life), I personally cannot have seen as much contemporary theatre as I would like so I cannot say categorically that this kind of new social realism is rare, but I suspect it is.I hope it’s part of a new wave.

The reason we remember Miller, Odets, Lorraine Hansberry, is that they expose something real yet complex about the relationship of individuals and families within the economic matrix. Perhaps this is what it means to be American in the post-manufacturing age. And furthermore, even though race hovers over this play and the deep vulnerability of its characters, the racial positioning of the characters themselves is far more ambiguous and complicated than what Hansberry’s Younger family had to deal with: both moving into the middle-class and remaining in the working-class are fraught with dangers of different kinds.

All of these tensions become that much more heightened as – in every industry, whether manufacturing or healthcare or higher education – fewer and fewer full-time workers relative to the growing need are being asked to do more, work more, give more. We are all becoming the very skeleton crews keeping this nation’s professional engines generating, whether products, service, care, or knowledge, while our brother and sister workers, and dads and moms, are severed, cast off, demoted to precarious, contingent positions or, as the play points out, moving from skilled labor in auto plants to jobs with no human impact in copy centers. Unemployment may technically be low by quantitative measures, but there remains just a skeleton crew doing meaningful work, in both the middle-class and the working-class, leaving bare our open wounds of aspiration.

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