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SKELETON CREW at the intimate Paul Robeson Theatre is running on all eight cylinders

THE BASICS: SKELETON CREW, a play by Dominique Morriseau, the third of her “Detroit Trilogy,” presented by Paul Robeson Theatre at the African American Cultural Center, directed by Paulette D. Harris, opened January 19 and runs through February 11, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 4., at the African American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Avenue. (884-2103). Runtime: 2 hours with one intermission. Snacks available.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  It’s winter in Detroit, Michigan in 2008, the year of the great recession, and we are in an automobile stamping plant, described as “the last small plant standing” as rumors of closing swirl around the break room and weigh on the minds of four workers still employed as part of the “skeleton crew” kept on to keep the plant operational in its final days: Shanita, who’s pregnant; Faye, who is a month shy of a 30-years-with-the-company pension; Dez, a young man with plans to someday open his own business; and Reggie, their young supervisor, caught between protecting his crew and following upper management’s orders. All four characters have affection for one another, but they also have to worry about their individual futures.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: It is the particular talent of great playwrights to show us how huge politico-cultural-racial-economic-climate forces play out in the lives of individuals. Another play in Morriseau’s “Detroit Trilogy” – DETROIT ’67 – brings the protest riots of the summer of 1967 down into the basement of a family trying to set up a small after-hours club. And PARADISE BLUE presents the dilemma of an African American club owner caught between self-interest and the future of his community.

If you like the plays of American authors August Wilson or Arthur Miller, you will like SKELETON CREW.

Once again, the Paul Robeson Theatre has reached out to Scenic Designer Harlan Penn and once again he has cleverly created an ultra-realistic, very complex set with his trademark three entrance points (on a rather small stage). This time it’s a “factory break room” complete with steel lockers, operating refrigerator, microwave, and I just loved this touch – a working Simplex time clock with punch card rack. And the ever-present bulletin boards where management can post messages including the ubiquitous “keep the break room clean” notice.

Director Paulette D. Harris has brought her considerable skills to the emotional ebb and flow of the evening, from the most intense in-your-face moments with all four characters on stage to the quiet introspective scenes, especially between the young supervisor and his oldest employee.

In perfect synch with the action and emotional ups and downs is the background din of the assembly line (Tierra D. Townsend is the Sound Designer/Operator) which ebbs and flows providing many of the same functions as a movie score.

Adding to the factory ultra-realism are the costumes by Annette L. Christian. A lot of polyesters died to make that clothing, but the finest touches were the safety gear worn by each actor as he or she came in off the factory floor.

When I say that this play is “running on all eight cylinders” I mean the fine tuning is there between the director, the set, sound, and costume designers, and the four actors. There are no weak links and there are no two-dimensional or stereotyped characters. We meet four people living full lives (which we hear about as they talk in the break room) who could be any one of us in the audience.

Verniece Turner plays Faye, who needs just one more month of employment at the factory to lock in her 30 years and a good pension. She’s in the difficult position of being the union steward without a lot of power to ease her member’s anxieties. Things are complicated by the fact that she got the supervisor, Reggie, his job and views him as the son she never had. Turner plays the role with quiet dignity and her presence as an actress adds a level of gravitas to the ensemble, in the same way that her character Faye keeps the younger workers more grounded.

Phil Davis as the young supervisor Reggie brings a very nuanced performance to the role, living perfectly in that untenable triangle connecting gentle sympathy for his crew with clear-eyed management all the while struggling to carry out upper management’s less-than-clear directives.

Christina Foster is Shanita, the pregnant worker who takes life as it comes. An accomplished young actress with great range she too offers a very nuanced, realistic portrayal. There are various cartoonish ways that she could have played Shanita. There is none of that nonsense here.

And the production introduces performance artist Julius Land to his first acting gig as the character Dez, the diffident young man who punches in but really wants out, so that he can start his own business. His performance is consistent and believable and if I hadn’t read the playbill bio after the show, I wouldn’t have known that this was his stage debut.

In addition to Morriseau’s original cast of four the Robeson has added a performer named Arterist “Peaze” Molson, a young man who introduces each of the two acts with his robotic (and hypnotic) dance moves (a reminder of how robots, not “foreigners,” are replacing American factory workers?). My only quibble was that his dance music was too loud for the small Paul Robeson Theatre. Factory workers subjected to that decibel level get ear protection. We didn’t.

A final note: One of the charming aspects of the Paul Robeson Theatre, besides the fresh popcorn at the concession stand, is the way that the actors all stand in a sort of reception line in the lobby after every performance, so that you can meet and greet each one individually, in a very relaxed but organized manner. The Robeson allows you to interact with the now relaxed and accessible actors, when a few moments ago, on stage their faces and body language were so tight and angry as the play dictated. It’s fun. I wish other theaters did that.

Up next for the African American Cultural Center: DON’T BOTHER ME I CAN’T COPE, a 1972 Grammy Award winner (Best Score from an Original Cast Show Album) and 1973 Tony nominee for Best Musical of the season, variously described as a dynamic mixture of rock, calypso, gospel, funk, soul, and ballads with a dozen singer-dancers in twenty non-stop numbers all about the African-American experience.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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