Loading. Please wait...
Skeleton Crew director Patricia McGregor. Photo by Erik Pearson.

A Perfect Union

Skeleton Crew is part of playwright Dominique Morisseau’s ambitious and extraordinary cycle of plays known as “The Detroit Project.” Set in Morisseau’s hometown of Detroit, each play in her trilogy looks at a moment when the city, and particularly the African-American community, stood on the precipice of change. Paradise Blue is set in a 1940s jazz club threatened by urban renewal and commercial interests. Detroit ’67 begins on the eve of the explosive 1967 riots between Detroit’s black civilians and the forces that oppressed them. Skeleton Crew, the third in the trilogy, takes place in a stamping plant just before the auto industry crash of 2008. As these plays examine moments in history, they also interrogate the idea of progress and give us an opportunity to reflect on where our country is now. Most importantly, they look with deep empathy at the individual people affected by forces of change beyond their control, giving voice to perspectives often unheard.

As rehearsals began for Skeleton Crew, I sat down with director Patricia McGregor to hear her thoughts on directing this piece for a second time, the play’s relationship to America and the resonance of this story in our current moment.

Having directed this play once before, what makes you excited to return to it?

Patricia McGregor: It’s like engineering a car — you have your first draft of the car and you fall in love with it. But you do think, “If I had another crack at it, this is the piece of the engineering I’d love to solve again.” Directing this again is both a celebration of what I love about the play and honoring the work that we created before but also being able to tackle some of the things that we thought, “If we had a little more time…” Also, each cast is a whole other alchemy, and what they bring — their personal experiences and their dynamic as a group — makes me learn new things about the play. Not only am I excited about what I’m going to discover now, with these actors, but it also still feels very necessary to be doing this play, and perhaps even more so, every moment.

How has your relationship with the play changed since you first read it? Are there parts that feel particularly resonant to you now?

PM: I feel like some of its messages and themes have been sharpened by the current political climate, like the idea of really looking at the American worker. And the way that’s been co-opted and coded to mean a very specific thing, usually the white American worker, when we know that historically the “work” of building this country, as we know it, has been centered on the backs and in the hands of people of color. This co-opting is ahistorical and deeply problematic. I’ve always been very interested in the union politics of this play. But it feels particularly charged as a way to say, “If we’re making the call for the need to protect American workers, that is a multicultural call, at its core, if we’re really looking at who has been doing this labor.” That, and looking at the consequences for individuals and the idea of generational wealth when the possibility of good union jobs goes away, feels even more important right now.

This play looks with beautiful specificity at a group of auto factory workers in Detroit — a life and profession that might seem quite different to people who don’t live in a place that’s a center of industry. What makes you eager to tell this story to Los Angeles?

PM: When we’re looking at the American narrative, an up-close telling of how political decisions impact those Everyman and Everywoman characters on the front lines of change doesn’t get big headlines. If you look at the Me Too movement, the second that Hollywood gets involved, the message is highlighted in a major way. So, how can we use our art to amplify messages and stories of individuals who are often not represented? How can we make sure that these stories are represented in a way that really honors the individuals who work to build a better life for themselves and their families outside the glamorous spotlight of this town? My dad was a fisherman for a long time, and I feel like we often dishonor those who do manual labor, even in our own communities. I think it’s important to give their journeys a platform, a microphone, and let their voices and stories be heard. It is meaningful to take the gridlock of capital P Politics and zoom in on a human scale.

I think of this play as being deeply patriotic, even though that can be a loaded term. What do you think about the play’s relationship to patriotism?

PM: One of the things I love about this piece is that, for me, it’s a prismatic examination of patriotism. Some of Shanita’s monologues are like arias — it almost feels like, “I sing the body electric” of American possibility through factory work. There’s a real faith and an optimism. Even at the end of the play — Dominique and I were talking about how to calibrate that there are deep challenges and yet people are kind of like, “We’re going to go in and we’re going to give it our best.” There is a deeply patriotic optimism, and then there’s also the challenge to that optimism within the play. I feel like there’s a great debate about when that feels like a source of strength and when it may feel like a set-up for being taken advantage of.

Dominique’s work — on the whole, but specifically “The Detroit Project” — rides that line so beautifully.

PM: And I love that. I think you can get so overwhelmed by what’s going on around you — factories closing, politics changing, feeling like people are being oppressed in a variety of ways — but yet say, “Giving up is the enemy, and we refuse to do that.” There’s this fundamental determination to stay in the game and keep pushing the ball forward, as much as you can, that feels very exciting to me.

Switching gears, we’re thrilled you’re coming back next season to direct Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole, which you co-wrote with Colman Domingo. How does your approach to directing other writers’ work differ from when you direct something you’ve also written?

PM: When I direct other people’s work, I often feel like they’ve been with it for so long and know it so intimately that I need to be careful to not make assumptions and plant myself on top of it — I need to really take a long journey of discovery, and then take the tools that I have to help launch it. So if I have a question, I need to make sure the answer’s not in the text somewhere and I just haven’t done my homework. Whereas when I’m directing my own work, I know where everything has come from. Then, it’s a balance between saying, “How does that need to be solved on stage?” and “How does that need to be solved on the page?” Sometimes I have to separate myself and pretend that the writer in me is outside of the room and we’re just going to do what’s on the page. But there’s a kind of speed at which things happen, because they need to, when I’m wearing both hats.

By Rachel Wiegardt-Egel

For tickets and showtimes, please visit geffenplayhouse.org/skeletoncrew or call our Box Office at 310.208.5454 (open daily, 7:00 a.m. — 6:00 p.m.).

Loading. Please wait...