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Fighting for the Working Man's Dignity

Date: Jan 22, 2016

How Ruben Santiago-Hudson brings epic scope to Skeleton Crew


Pay careful attention to the first moment in Skeleton Crew: In some ways, it holds the entire story of the show.

The final part of her "Detroit trilogy," Dominique Morisseau's play is set in a small factory that makes parts for automobiles. The employees are dismayed to learn the plant might close, but we soon realize they aren't only afraid for their jobs. They're afraid for their identities, which are bound to the work that gives them a purpose, a sense of pride, a community.

The entire play – which runs through Valentine's Day at Atlantic Theater Company's Stage 2 – unfolds in the factory's work room, helping Morisseau capture her characters' intimate rapport. However, it's clear she's got more than just this plant on her mind. The soaring passion of her writing, which delivers eloquent arias and fiery debates, lifts us out of the everyday world and into something bigger.

And that "something bigger" is what Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the production's director, wants to evoke in the first moment. Before we see any of the characters, we see a dancer. Dressed as a worker, he combines basic factory gestures – turning a knob, pulling a lever – with elegant, fluid shapes. While he moves, images of Detroit fill the stage, covering his body with flickering light.

If that makes us consider the overall crisis in American manufacturing, then Santiago-Hudson has succeeded. "You do spend your time in this little break room, but you have to know what this little break room exists in," he says. "It exists immediately in the factory and then beyond the immediate. Which is a city. Which is the industry. Which is the country. It's got to be bigger than two people sittin' on a porch talkin', playin' harmonica and a guitar. Or three people sittin' in a break room drinkin' coffee. It's bigger than that in Dominique's writing, which is very muscular, and I wanted to make sure those muscles had a frame they could hang on."


That's also why the dancer (Adesola Osakalumi) regularly appears in the background, visible through the break room window. He's a reminder of how many Americans are defined by the work they do.

As Santiago-Hudson says, "I let one person in a specific movement metaphorically represent that whole line, represent that whole factory, represent that whole city. Hopefully, you feel the vitality, the vibrancy, and the demise of Detroit."

Of course, dancing isn't the only element that gives Skeleton Crew its scope and urgency. Even small details are crafted with that in mind.

For instance, when Reggie (Wendell B. Franklin), a factory supervisor who used to be a line worker, first enters the break room, he doesn't move like everyone else. The other characters are comfortable in the space, flopping down wherever they want, but Reggie, stiff and "boss-like," barely moves at all.

"Where does he go?" Santiago-Hudson notes. "Where is his seat? He's the one that comes down and sits in the seat that's a different color. Subconsciously, Reggie knows that's the odd chair out, and he's the odd man out."

Elements like these teach us how to understand the play's world. They give physical life to ideas about community and respect. And Santiago-Hudson knows how crucial they can be. "I'll wake up at 5 or 6 in the morning saying, 'Oh, oh, oh! That has to be bigger now! We have to change that now!" he says, laughing. "Nothing in this play has not caused me to lose some sleep."


Follow Mark Blankenship at @IAmBlankenship. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Photos by Ahron Foster. Top photo: Jason Dirden and Nikiya Mathis.

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