Crisis Response: The Historical Moment Behind Skeleton Crew

March 2, 2024

Skeleton Crew takes place during a very real and charged moment in US history: the 2008 auto industry crisis. Dive into the historical events that inspired Dominique Morisseau's electrifying play.

President Bush announces the first bailouts.

Crisis After Crisis

It is late 2008, and the US auto industry is in turmoil. The repercussions of the subprime mortgage crisis and rising oil prices lead to a dramatic decrease in sales, particularly for highly profitable domestic-made trucks and SUVs that are seen as less fuel efficient and more expensive than smaller vehicles imported from overseas. Profits plummet and manufacturers face the imminent threat of bankruptcy. Factories close, homes are lost, businesses go under.

With the industry on the brink of disaster, President George W. Bush declares that “allowing the U.S. auto industry to collapse is not a responsible course of action” and President-elect Obama pledges “a re-tooled, re-imagined auto industry that can compete and win,” stating that “millions of jobs depend on it. Scores of communities depend on it.” Within six months General Motors and Chrysler, two of the “Big Three” of American automakers, have filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy and have to be bailed out by the Federal Government. This rescue totals $80.3 billion, but both companies would later largely repay these investments. It is estimated that the GM bailout alone saved 1.2 million jobs and preserved $34.9 billion in tax revenue.

Detroit Reels in Response

This turmoil is acutely felt in the Motor City. GM, Chrysler, and Ford all started in Detroit and still employ tens of thousands of people in the area. The stability, security, and benefits offered by these companies — the result of hard-won battles by United Auto Workers and other unions — are not just crucial to the livelihoods of their employees, but bolster the economy of the entire city. This support has long been threatened — imperiled by shifts to overseas production and the erosion of union protections — but the onset of the Great Recession significantly accelerates a citywide economic crisis fueled by decades of systemic racism and institutional neglect.

It is in this climate of unpredictability and upheaval that Dominique Morisseau sets Skeleton Crew. While the specific details remain in the background, they drive the tension and motivations of each of the four characters. They face housing uncertainty, job instability, systemic inequalities, and yet this skeleton crew still holds the line. Like Detroit they are resilient, determined to realize the American dream despite overwhelming obstacles.

Fifteen Years Later

Even here in 2024 we are still feeling the impacts of these events. The intense public scrutiny prompted by the crisis forced American automakers to focus more on environmental sustainability, work that is still underway as we are more and more aware of the catastrophic impacts of vehicle emissions on the environment. Detroit, too, has undergone much change and transformation. It is thanks to the work of planners, activists, ordinary citizens, and artists like Morisseau that the city is seeing a revitalization.

With so much at stake, what lengths will these workers go to to survive? Find out in Skeleton Crew, playing at Farmers Alley Theatre March 7 through 17, 2024. Buy your tickets here.