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Walking the Line

“Walking on the Line:”

The Teetering View in Skeleton Crew

by Faedra Chatard Carpenter,  Production Dramaturg

It has been a decade since the U.S. stumbled into the aches and pains of the Great Recession. National statistics prove that the financial turmoil that began in December 2007 fell far short of the debilitating trials and traumas suffered by Americans during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Yet and still, talk of a "Great Recession” felt like a delusional understatement for some cities, Detroit, Michigan being a prime example.

For Detroit, the nation’s ills were unwelcome complements to the steady decline of the city’s once-upon-a-time bustling auto industry. Once known as “The Auto Capital of the World,” Detroit was the hub of major automobile makers such as Ford, GM, and Chrysler. Back in the day, business boomed and the city’s population proliferated. In fact, from 1920 to 1950 Detroit proudly held the title of being the fourth largest city in the country. For decades the Motor City was on a seemingly unstoppable and aspirational joy ride, and the good times seemed like they would continue to roll on—that is, until they rolled out.

While the auto industry had experienced ups and downs before 2007, the recession marked a monumental shift in gears. Compounded by an influx of industry-specific factors' (collapsing of credit markets, rising oil prices, foreign competition, plummeting auto sales, and the displacing effects of automation), the Great Recession further aggravated the already tenuous condition of automobile companies, steering them—and the people of Detroit—into a course of uncertainty. It is amidst these trying times that we enter the world of Skeleton Crew.

The small cadre of workers in Skeleton Crew, a makeshift family, are first-hand witnesses to the stripping and shrinking of both their communities, the auto industry (the source of their livelihood and fellowship) and the city of Detroit. The characters and predicaments offer audiences a vivid portrait of recent, real life drama. In doing so, Skeleton Crew prompts us all to recognize how thin the line can be between the haves and have nots—and how easily such lines are crossed, by accident or intention.

In many respects, the specific history dramatized by Skeleton Crew—the story of Detroit, the Auto Industry, America—is all about “lines,” both literal and metaphoric. Socio-economic lines. Racial lines. City lines. Assembly lines. Picket lines. The lines between the haves and the have nots. And, in the words of Skeleton Crew’s characters, the affirming or numbing experience of “working the line” and the empowering or paralyzing consequence of “walking on the line."

True to this thematic observation is the fact that in writing the play, Dominique Morisseau “works the lines” by mapping out her characters’ journeys so that we, the audience, invariably “walk the line” ourselves. We are encouraged to refrain from judging these characters; to teeter at the brink of indecision and expectation because, well, sometimes there are no easy answers, no clear delineations, no easily-made pronouncements of right or wrong, good or bad.

Likewise, the characters of Skeleton Crew—not unlike the city of Detroit—find themselves in circumstances that ask them to be cautious yet hopeful, poised at the precipice of uncertainty.  Like the city they call home, they are trying to move forward, while participating in an undesirable balancing act. Weary and wary but still standing, still working, they continue moving forward, heads held high, with daredevil precision, walking on a very thin line.

Learn more about Skeleton Crew.