Madelyn Porter on Skeleton Crew and its Implications for Detroit

by on November 9, 2017

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We sat down with actress, Madelyn Porter, to get her thoughts on Skeleton Crew and its implications for the city of Detroit!

Madelyn Porter in Skeleton Crew rehearsal, 2017. Photo by Philip Allgeier.

Madelyn Porter on Skeleton Crew and its Implications for Detroit

We’re at an interesting point in history right now for America, and in particular, the city of Detroit. When many people think of Detroit, they don’t think of its thriving arts scene, its important contributions to music, or its beautiful and diverse architecture. Rather, these days, Detroit is more often thought of for its urban decay and high crime rate. However, more and more Detroit voices are speaking out to try to change the narrative that’s told about their beloved city.  

One such powerful voice is that of Dominique Morisseau. Her three-play cycle, The Detroit Project, has brought national attention to the stories of Detroit at various points in history, and depicts the city—as well as the lives of the people in it—as something much more than the common narrative held by the nation. Pleased to tell one of Dominique’s stories is actress, Madelyn Porter. Porter portrays Faye, a maternal auto worker in a stamping factory in Detroit, in Actors Theatre’s production of Skeleton Crew. Local to Detroit, Porter is also unafraid to throw in her voice right along Dominique’s in defense of the Motor City. We were lucky enough to catch up with Porter to hear her thoughts on Skeleton Crew, Dominique and Detroit in the following interview.

The following has been lightly edited for clarity.

ACTORS THEATRE: Tell us a little about yourself and growing up in Detroit.

MADELYN PORTER: I was seven when I moved to Detroit from Boston. I was devastated.  My mother was an educator, and we moved to Detroit with my aunts who were all teachers. We lived in the section of the city that was three blocks from the 1967 Detroit riots. Our neighborhood ranged from blue collar to upper-middle class. The “white flight” had taken place by then; redlining was massive in Detroit. But a lot of people who worked in the auto plants in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s were buying up the homes in these beautiful neighborhoods. The people who worked in the plants had a deal where they could get a car for nothing. It was on. In the ‘60s, they were considered big time.

There still was a break between the working class and academia. My mother had her Master’s Degree and worked for educational institutions. So, I was exposed to many different worlds of black America. A lot of my friends worked in the plant—I even worked in the plant. But I worked in insurance because I could do shorthand and type well. I was home from college, and I worked for Chrysler.

AT: What was it about Skeleton Crew drew you in to make you want to be a part of the show?

MP: The character, Faye, grabbed me immediately. I can identify with her on so many levels. She represents sacrifice and true love. You make sacrifices when you truly love someone. I liked her rawness—she’s a lot like me when it comes to speaking up and speaking out. She does not pull any punches. But, she’s also funny as hell. She laughs to keep from crying—she literally does that. She laughs and she keeps everyone else laughing to keep from crying. She challenges people to keep them in line. She’s a savior. She’s so many things.

All of the other characters in the play, they’re an extension of Faye. She’s like a tree trunk, and they are her branches. She makes them all stronger people. She’ll figure a way out to survive after the economy crashes, and that lets everybody else survive too.

The other thing is that all of the characters are heroes. So, each person in this story represents an aspect that destroyed Detroit. Faye gambles—when Detroit started to fall after the Recession, the casinos stepped in. People who were trying to take care of families started gambling. I can identify with that, as a starving artist, I tried to hustle up some change. You lose track of time in a casino because there are no clocks. It became a new drug for a lot of people. Dez represents crime, guns and murdering because he carries a gun. But he carries for a different reason. He’s not stealing anything, but he fits the profile of someone who would. Shanita has dreams, but she’s an unwed mother.

But in the end, everybody contributes, and that’s what makes them heroes. Shanita contributes life and she’s very bright, Dez wants to build his own business as if he were rebuilding the city itself, Reggie represents management and corporations stepping in, and Faye represents family, which is so important.

AT: What are your thoughts about Dominique Morisseau’s portrayal of the city in her play?

MP: I like her work because she’s so organically earthy, so political, so raw. She’s politically raw and real. She loves Detroit. She’s very entrenched in Detroit—her spirit, her soul. The artistic or the corporate world, she’s immersed in all of that. She’s able to capture Detroit in her work. Detroit has so much negative press. Dominique took that negativity and found that silver lining. Each character in Skeleton Crew, for instance, has a tragic, but happy ending. There’s hope there. Dominique shows the ultimate hope, and it resonates for the city because the city also has hope.

AT: Can you speak a little more about her work in general?

MP: Dominique is a poet, and she’s so well beyond her years in her wisdom. She comes out with these words that are rhythmical and they resonate. Her language is beautifully poetic.  She captures everything from spoken word to classic poetry. It’s like hip-hop. I hear a little jazz, a little of this and that, but I mostly hear hip-hop.

The rhythmic aspect tells a whole different story. It envelops it. Her piece lends itself to everything—music, dance, song—it’s a complete arts experience. It’s political, revolutionary, it’s radical, it’s musical, it’s global, it’s worldly. All that is a part of her story. Even in Detroit ’67, Dominique deals with the devastation of the riots and police brutality, as well as interracial relationships. She really tells it all, but she grabs everything going on, and everyone can relate to it, just like hip-hop and rap. It’s not just prevalent to the black community. Her work touches on not just black America, but all America.

AT: Skeleton Crew is set in Detroit during the 2008 recession, which was a devastating year for the city. Can you speak a little to what Detroit was like during that time?

MP: Before the Recession, especially in the black community, people were making over six figures working overtime in auto plants. Their idea of success was to either graduate from school or to jump right into the plant. Those who were encouraged to get an education were fortunately able to move on when the Recession hit. But the ones who didn’t, once that bottom fell out, they were devastated. Homes were abandoned. Drugs stepped in—the drug scene was always in there, but it really escalated. Then, of course, Detroit was a crime center and all that. Gangs, they just kind of fed off of that debacle. They fed off the drug scene. The steps that are starting to be taken against the opioid epidemic weren’t taken back then when they were against a certain demographic.

AT: Fast-forward to 2017: How do you think Detroit is faring now?

MP: It’s coming back. The crime rate has dropped because people are gone or dead. There’s a lot of gentrification now, a lot rebuilding and restructuring. The arts community is stepping up to the plate, like always. But now even more so. Artists are even creating art with all the abandoned buildings in the city. I love the art that’s popping up. The arts community has turned blight into bright. They’ll create community gardens. Schools are stepping up. Organizations, and foundations are putting money into the community to develop it.  And the hope is the youth, of course.

A couple of big money men are helping downtown. But that’s also part of the problem. There are sections of the city that are working, but in the grassroots, there’s a lot of work to be done to help the working class. A lot of jobs are coming in, but they’re not for the working class at all. Big corporations have white collar jobs; they’re hiring millennials. There’s a lot of young folks making big money.

But I’m seeing a lot of hope. Dominique’s work brings to the world that there’s hope for the city of Detroit to negate all those bad things. She’s battling all that negative press through her work depicting the spirit and heart of the people. Look at the people, and you’ll find hope.

AT: So, to pivot back to Skeleton Crew, why should Louisville audiences come see this show?

MP: So that they can say good things about Detroit, dammit! You need to look at the people because that’s who the city really is. It’s the people. There are good things and good people in the city of Detroit.  We’re real, that’s how we live. I think that audiences will be able to identify with every character in a humanistic way. It will give them a new viewpoint through the people and see that we’re real. I just think it’s important to see how we are all related.  We have to work together to make things better. And that’s Dominique, that’s her whole philosophy: to keep the hope alive.

Purchase tickets to see Skeleton Crew today!

Actors Theater of Louisville
316 West Main St.
Louisville, KY 40202
Box Office: 502.584.1205
502.371.0956 TDD

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