Play Looks Into Workers' Lives When Car Industry Failed

01 June, 2016

Detroit, Michigan has been the center of America's automobile industry since the early 20th century.

Detroit, the "Motor City" as it is known, is home to the "Big Three" U.S. automakers: General Motors, Chrysler and Ford.

This year, U.S. automakers are expected to sell a record number of vehicles. And Michigan produces more cars and trucks than any other state.

A scene from Skeleton Crew, which was honored with an Obie award.
A scene from Skeleton Crew, which was honored with an Obie award.

But it is hard to forget 2008. That year, the U.S. government rescued GM and Chrysler from failure. Ford also received help, a government line of credit.

During that period, hundreds of thousands of workers lost their jobs as auto factories and their supply companies shrank or closed.

Now, a new play in New York looks at four auto workers struggling in hard economic times.

"Skeleton Crew" is the latest play by Detroit native Dominique Morisseau. It is her third play about her hometown.

"Skeleton Crew" received a special honor at this year's Obie awards. The Obies recognize plays performed at New York area theaters with fewer than 500 seats.

The play takes place at a factory that makes car parts for the Big Three auto makers. But times are difficult. The factory has dismissed a lot of workers. Those who remain are the skeleton crew, the fewest workers required to keep the factory operating.

Morriseau spoke about the play earlier this year to radio station WNYC.

"It's exploring a group of workers, a family of workers, who sort of have to deal with the different impacts that this potential closing will have on them."

A hometown tale

The story is all very personal for Morriseau, who was born and raised in Detroit. She said she wanted to learn more about the people that lived through some of the city's crises.

So she went home to talk to people about what it felt like to be in Detroit in 2008, when the auto industry was on the edge of collapse.

For the workers in "Skeleton Crew," it was an earth-shaking moment. Ruben Santiago-Hudson is the play's director. He says Morisseau is able to create her characters with empathy.

"This play is really important, in the sense that you come into the world of blue-collar life. So, to go and see the integrity of these people and also how they feed off each other – they're so, all different and they all need each other."

Nikiya Mathis plays the part of Shanita in "Skeleton Crew." At one point, Shanita is talking to co-worker Faye Davis, played by Lynda Gravatt.

"You gotta make yourself irreplaceable. That's what I'm doing."

"How you figure you irreplaceable? I been from stampin' doors to installing shocks to them seven years I spent sewing interiors. Ain't nobody in this plant more irreplaceable than Faye Davis is!"

Everyone's replaceable

But, as "Skeleton Crew" goes on, all the workers learn just how replaceable they are. The supervisor could lose his house in the economic downturn. The worker might have to take a lower-paying job, as she prepares to have her first baby. And, shop leader Faye has been making cars her entire life, but now, she lives in one.

Lynda Gravatt says Faye is both strong and defenseless.

"And life has beaten her, and she hasn't quite figured out how to negotiate or how life has beaten her or why it has beaten her. So, she, you know, spends her money going to casinos ... which many people do."

In a way, "Skeleton Crew" examines how the financial crisis in Detroit, and in the country, creates personal crises.

Santiago-Hudson says those crises feel and sound real.

"Dominique hears the language of her life, of her community. And she not only hears it, she relays it just the way she heard it."

"She's just trying to let you experience them," he says.

I'm Jill Robbins.

Jeff Lunden wrote this report for VOA News. Caty Weaver adapted his report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

The character of Faye is said to be "beaten" by her life. What do you think that means? Leave your answer in our Comment section, and post on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

skeleton crewn. the fewest number of workers needed to continue operation at a workplace

impact n. a powerful or major influence or effect

potential adj. capable of becoming real; possible

empathyn. the ability to share someone else's feelings

blue-collar adj. requiring physical work

integrityn. the quality of being honest and fair

irreplaceable adj. too valuable or rare to be replaced; not replaceable

casinon. a building or room that has games of chance (such as roulette or blackjack) for gambling