From Death of a Salesman to Sweat, the worker’s plight remains a rich vein for American theater. In a place like Cleveland, where plant closings have arrived in assembly-line fashion for decades, such plays have a special relevance. Add to that tradition Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, running Jan. 24-Feb. 16 at the Dobama Theatre. Set in the break room of a Detroit auto plant where rumors of a shutdown spin, Skeleton Crew takes on a reality many Northeast Ohioans face. It’s the third play by the MacArthur Fellow that local theaters produced this season, and the second by Dobama in two years. Here, Dobama artistic director Nathan Motta breaks down the work’s relevance to our region.
Cleveland Magazine: Dobama staged a Dominique Morisseau show, Sunset Baby, last year. Why stage another of her scripts this season?
Nathan Motta: Dominique Morisseau is widely considered one of our most important living playwrights. And she’s from Detroit, so in terms of things the regional audience might be interested in, or that is topical for [Northeast Ohio], Detroit is not all that different, in its history and current obstacles, than Cleveland. A lot of the stuff she writes is not just topical for America, but for the Great Lakes region.
CM What makes Skeleton Crew special?
NM When you look at unions, specifically United Auto Workers, and the plight of those folks for a number of years with the closing of the Lordstown plant and the [General Motors] strike, the basic idea of the play is something that’s very topical now. But the play is also about the cycle of poverty, about having a job that’s been passed down through your family. Or maybe feeling like you have limited prospects based on your education or the community you live in. That cycle is discussed a lot as one of the biggest challenges that American cities face. For those reasons, it’s an important piece to do. On top of that, it’s very funny. The characters are well-drawn and the relationships are really interesting.
CM: What’s that relationship dynamic like in the factory break room?
NM: These four characters are almost like a family. There’s a second-mother situation with the elder employee of the group [played by Lisa Louise Langford], and two younger characters who have feelings for each other, like a young couple [played by Robert Hunter and Mary-Francis R. Miller], and a pseudo-big brother or authority figure [played by Ananias J. Dixon].
CM: With a play this topical, do you worry that it might be too real, or hit too close to home with audience members’ real struggles?
NM: I find it to be quite the opposite. Typically, whatever story we’re telling on stage, more people whose life relates closely to that story tend to come. If we do a play about two people that are over 70, we tend to find that a lot of people who are in their 60s, 70s, 80s come to that show. If we do a show about primarily people of color, there’ll be a lot more people of color we see coming to the show. If anything, people are interested in seeing something that they can really relate to and that feels like their life. And for somebody who comes to the show who feels the specific circumstances of the play are not part of their life experience, not only may they be seeing the show with people who it is their experience, but they’re also still finding the commonalities in their life with the people onstage.