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The unlikeliest of settings for a Broadway play: a Detroit auto factory

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Gathering research several years ago for a play she was writing set in a factory during the Great Recession, Dominique Morisseau still remembers talking to a friend who drove a Hi-Lo at a local factory.

Think what you want about the redundancy of factory work, the friend, in her 30s, didn't just like her job, she told Morisseau. She loved it. She wanted Morisseau to pass that on to whoever the playwright was working with.

"I said 'I promise I'll tell them how much you love your job,'" said Morisseau, who grew up in Detroit and is a Cass Tech and University of Michigan graduate. "The pride that she had — it's a family thing to work in factories."

That pride but also the survival, resilience and uncertainty of Detroit's auto and factory workers are central themes to Morisseau's play, "Skeleton Crew." Set in an unlikely setting for a Broadway show — a Detroit stamping plant on the brink of closure in 2008, literally the last factory standing — it opens Jan. 26 at Broadway's Manhattan Theatre Club after having its world premiere in New York and a run at Detroit Public Theatre.

Playwright Dominique Morisseau, second from right, a Detroit native, stands with the cast of "Skeleton Crew" along with director Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Morisseau's "Skeleton Crew" will debut on Broadway just as another one of her shows, "Ain't Too Proud," closes.

The play, which the New York Times has called "warm-blooded, astute," is the latest Broadway triumph for Morisseau, a Tony-nominated writer, who infuses her Detroit roots into much of her work. She wrote the book for the hit musical "Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations" which ended its Broadway run Sunday, just weeks before "Skeleton Crew" opens. A touring production of "Ain't Too Proud" heads to Detroit this summer.

Morisseau, who also is the Detroit Public Theatre's executive artistic producer, said she's known as a Detroit storyteller and she'll continue to tell the city's stories, but she isn't just telling Detroit stories. 

"Telling Detroit stories is telling America's story," said Morisseau, who has even done a translation project of "Skeleton Crew" in Russian. "It's telling a global story...Telling stories about our city is just telling human stories."

"Skeleton Crew" is directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and stars another Detroit native and Cass Tech grad, Chanté Adams. Tony-nominated "Cosby Show" actress Phylicia Rashad, meanwhile, portrays Faye, a longtime autoworker and union rep, and it's a role unlike any Rashad has ever played before, said Morisseau. She hopes patrons come to see Rashad for that reason alone.

Actress Chanté Adams, left, a Detroit native, is part of the cast of "Skeleton Crew" premiering at the Manhattan Theatre Club later this month. Also starring in the play, left to right, are Brandon Dirden, Tony-nominated actress Phylicia Rashad and Joshua Boone.

"She's never done a play like this, she's never done a character like this," said Morisseau. "She's playing an older, dirt under her nails, baggy jeans, bandana-wearing queer woman — that is who this character is. And that's nothing close to who Phylicia really is in life. So it's really something to see."

"Skeleton Crew," which was originally supposed to premiere this week but had to be pushed back to Jan. 26 because of COVID, is one of three plays in Morisseau's Detroit series, which also included "Detroit '67" and "Paradise Valley." 

Sarah Winkler, one of Detroit Public Theatre's co-founders, calls "Skeleton Crew" a "spectacular" play. And while every path to path to Broadway is different, she said, "it’s a rare play that makes it there," she said.

Morisseau said as she was planning out her series of Detroit plays around 2010, she knew she wanted one set in an auto factory. She said the auto industry "built" her family, with uncles, cousins and friends all working in plants. Her grandfather was an autoworker. 

"I've never seen a factory on stage. I wondered what would that look like?" she said. 

Morisseau also wanted the play set during the Great Recession that started in 2008. She remembers visiting her family's Detroit home as the foreclosure crisis was rippling through the city and the auto industry was on the brink of collapse.

"It affected so many people that I know and love, my friends, family, everybody, all of my Detroit squad," said Morisseau. "I was not living in Detroit at the time. So when I would come home in that era, I'd see houses in my neighborhood on the west side, 6 Mile and Livernois area, I'd see my family's home and the neighborhood — houses in that neighborhood were boarded up and that's not what you'd see in that neighborhood. When I saw that, I was like, 'What's happening to the whole city?'" 

"Skeleton Crew" opens with a quote from former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney about letting the auto industry collapse. The entire play is set in the factory's break room. Music adds artistry to the setting as does sound and dance. Morisseau's husband, James Keys, also a Detroit native, wrote the music.

In many ways, the story about the last plant standing in a city hit by one closure after another and the workers left behind, has parallels to the coronavirus pandemic today, said Morisseau.

"That's exactly what we're going through with COVID," she said.