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Yellow Tree Theatre’s ‘Skeleton Crew’ is perfectly cast

ALSO: Downtown Minneapolis Church Choir Festival at Westminster Presbyterian; “Superman Becomes Lois Lane” to open at the History Theatre; and more.

Skeleton Crew
Jamecia Bennett, Mikell Sapp and Nadége Matteis in "Skeleton Crew."
Photo by Justin Cox

It’s hard to watch the lives of people you care about fall apart. You quickly come to care about the four people in “Skeleton Crew”: no-nonsense Faye; hot-headed Dez; young, about-to-be-single-mother Shanita; conflicted Reggie. They all work in the same leaky ship: a small auto stamping plant in Detroit in 2008, the height of the Great Recession.

Twin Cities audiences are familiar with playwright and MacArthur Fellow Dominique Morisseau. “Skeleton Crew” is the third play in her Detroit Projects cycle. Penumbra staged the first, “Detroit ’67,” in 2015. Penumbra also produced Morisseau’s “Sunset Baby” (2016) and “Pipeline” (2019).

Morisseau’s Broadway musical, “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,” was announced earlier this week as one of the shows in Hennepin Theatre Trust’s 2020-21 “Broadway on Hennepin” series.

“Skeleton Crew” is on stage now at Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo. Yellow Tree was founded in 2008, the same year Morisseau’s play takes place, by husband-and-wife team Jason Peterson and Jessica Lind Peterson. It has since presented nearly 50 productions including 10 world premieres. “Skeleton Crew” is a regional premiere and a co-production with New Dawn Theater Company. New Dawn’s artistic director, Austene Van, directed “Skeleton Crew.”

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As the play opens, Faye (Jamecia Bennett), a lesbian and breast cancer survivor, wants to keep her job, her secrets, and her position as a union rep. Dez (Mikell Sapp) wants to leave the plant when he’s good and ready to open his own garage. Shanita (Nadége Matteis) wants to stay in a job she loves and takes pride in, one that runs in her family. She aims to make herself irreplaceable. Foreman Reggie (Darius Dotch) wants to protect his own family and comfortable life and the workers whose lives he knows, because he came from the same place they did.

Eventually, all of their wants narrow down to one: survival. If the plant shuts down – when it shuts down – what will happen to them?

The play takes place in a well-used break room, with occasional glimpses of the line through reeded glass windows: silhouetted workers performing repetitive tasks, sometimes moving like robots performing repetitive tasks, a hint of things to come. Whenever the door to the break room opens, we hear the roar of the floor.

Individual stories unfold and tensions rise in a series of 11 scenes over two acts. We learn that all four people care for each other. Dez, Shanita and Reggie worry that Faye is still smoking, despite her recent cancer. Faye, Dez and Reggie are protective toward Shanita, and Dez’s feelings about her run deeper. Faye has known Reggie all his life; he’s almost a son to her. Everyone wants to believe in Dez, and they all want the best for him, but his anger at having to prove himself feeds their suspicions.

Meanwhile, management is cracking down. Workers are being laid off for small infractions, to thin the ranks and save costs. Nighttime robberies at the plant have everyone on edge, and some are wondering if Dez is guilty. Reggie is facing impossible choices and his own sense of community and morality.

You know “Skeleton Crew” can’t end well, but it ends better than you might think. Differently than you might expect. (Any play where someone has a temper and a gun is cause for a nagging kind of worry, so we’ll tell you right now: No one gets shot.) Throughout, we’re uplifted by Morisseau’s lyrical writing, a blend of everyday speech and flights of near poetry. She has drawn her characters with affection and respect.

All four actors are perfectly cast, their actions and interactions believable. They seem comfortable together, as if they’ve known each other for a long time. We’ve seen Bennett, Dotch and Sapp on stage before. Matteis is new here, in from New York City, making her area debut. We hope to see her again.

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Van directs with sensitivity and a sure hand. “Skeleton Crew” has a lot of short scenes but never feels choppy. The theater is small and so is the stage, a three-quarter thrust (similar to Gremlin at Vandalia Tower), but the direction, staging, sound and lighting make you feel you’re in a room that opens onto a vast space.

As we read about Macy’s next round of closings and job cuts, and the layoffs planned at 3M, “Skeleton Crew” seems more like today than yesterday.

The play runs Wednesdays through Sundays, with evening performances and some matinees. FMI and tickets ($26-30). Closes March 1.

The picks

Dyani White Hawk, Untitled, 2014, Charcoal on paper
Private collection, courtesy of the artist and Todd Bockley Gallery, Minneapolis
Dyani White Hawk, Untitled, 2014, Charcoal on paper
Now at the U’s Katherine E. Nash Gallery: “The Beginning of Everything: An Exhibition of Drawings.” You may need to visit this big group show more than once. If you do, you’ll learn a lot about drawing. (Tip: It’s not just pencil on paper.) With works by more than 100 artists, it spans 500 years. Some names from the list: Harriet Bart, Christo, Jim Denomie, Jean Dubuffet, Katsushika Hokusai (of “The Great Wave” fame), Henri Matisse, Diego Rivera, Paolo Veronese, Dyani White Hawk. Nash Gallery director Howard Oransky curated the show, and there’s a catalog. Gallery hours are 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. FMI. Free. Ends March 28.

Tonight (Friday, Feb. 7) at Orchestra Hall: “Music and the Mind with Sam and Sarah.” Sam is Minnesota Orchestra violist Sam Bergman; Sarah is Sarah Hicks, principal conductor of Live at Orchestra Hall. In this program, they’ll explore how our brains engage with music, how neurodiversity plays a role in the creation and appreciation of art, and how mental wellness and illness have shaped works by famous composers, The Minnesota Orchestra, led by Hicks, will provide the soundtrack. Musical selections will include works by Beethoven, Mozart, Bruckner, Sibelius, Schoenberg and more. 8 p.m. FMI and tickets ($32.75 to $78.75).

Saturday at Next Chapter Booksellers: Literary Lights. In the first Literary Lights reading of the year, Hawona Sullivan-Janzen, Brenda Brown Bell, James Bernard Short, A. Rafael Johnson, Mary Moore Easter and Clarence White will celebrate the Harlem Renaissance in words. 2-3:30 p.m. Free, but donations are welcome.

Mary Halvorson's Code Girl
Photo by Reuben Radding
Mary Halvorson's Code Girl
Saturday at the Walker: Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl and Thumbscrew. We hear a lot of music, and a lot of talk about music, and a name that keeps coming up is Mary Halvorson. There aren’t that many women guitarists in jazz, even fewer in avant-garde jazz, and for now (probably forever) she’s the only one to win a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” Halvorson plays with a lot of interesting people (including Bill Frisell) and has eight bands of her own. She’ll be at the Walker with her band Code Girl, doing all new material, and Thumbscrew, a trio with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara. 8 p.m. FMI and tickets ($26/20.80).

Opens Saturday at the History Theatre: “Superman Becomes Lois Lane.” Workshopped during last year’s Raw Stages, this play is the true story, told in her own words, of Susan Kimberly, a transgender woman who became deputy mayor of St. Paul in the mid-1990s. Trans woman Freya Richman stars as Kimberly; Laura Leffler directs the world premiere production. In a promotional video, Kimberly says, “I haven’t told it all, but I’ve come very, very close to telling everything in this show.” 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($20-48, students $15). Closes March 1.

Sunday at Westminster Presbyterian Church: Downtown Minneapolis Church Choir Festival. Six downtown Minneapolis church choirs will gather to sing separately and together, 300 voices strong. Participating churches are the Basilica of St. Mary, Central Lutheran, Hennepin Avenue Methodist, Plymouth Congregational, St. Mark’s Episcopal and Westminster Presbyterian. Each choir will sing an anthem by itself, and together they’ll sing music by Abbie Betinis, Edward Elgar and Gerald Near, plus the world premiere of a commissioned anthem by Paul John Rudoi. 2 p.m. Free.

Sunday at the Dakota: Eddie Palmieri. It’s hard to believe the Latin jazz giant had never played the Dakota until last August. He was fantastic. If you missed him them, you are so in luck, because he’s returning on Sunday. A sublime pianist, charming on the stand and a nine-time Latin Grammy winner, Palmieri will play two sets, at 6 p.m. and 8:30. FMI and tickets ($30-45). Here he is at NPR’s Tiny Desk in 2016.