The cast of Pill Hill
The cast of Pill Hill
Set in Chicago in the volatile time period between 1973 and 1983, Samuel L. Kelley's Pill Hill simmers with the energy of six African-American mill workers searching for an elusive American Dream. Beneath the bleak bravado of the six friends' lives lies a sense of loss, detachment, and resentment.

We first meet Northwestern University student Ed (Neal A. Ghant) and his best friend Joe (Johnell J. Easter) in a seedy Southside apartment, where they are hosting a night of beer and cards with the guys. Ed diligently chides Joe to escape the mill and to acquire an education. As the friends gather, we also meet Al (Enoch King), a harried, hen-pecked fellow celebrating his escape from the mill; Tony (Duain Richmond Martyn), a natural-born salesman with a silver tongue and golden dreams; and Scott (Neal R. Hazard), a smooth-as-silk former footballer turned mill backer.

Charlie (Tony Vaughn), the father figure of the group, represents the grimy mill existence from which the younger men yearn to escape. His beaten-down sense of loyalty and familial responsibility is both touching and harrowing. Vaughn's Charlie personifies the effects of Southern racism in one of the most powerful scenes of the play.

The men measure their lives with flashy clothes and flashier cars as they go through the years making car payments and paycheck plans. In Act II, we are right back where we started but five years later, with Ed at Northwestern Law School, Al working in low-end real estate, Tony selling insulation, Scott toeing the company line, and Joe planning to leave the mill and start college after receiving just two or three more paychecks. Charlie's dedicated but unrewarded service pierces the younger men's sense of accomplishment and fuels the fear that they may never reach the titular neighborhood of fine homes and classy automobiles. Scott tells Ed that, even if he succeeds, a black man in America will always be a second class citizen -- a painful reminder that the dream the men have bought into exists only for a few and comes with a high price for admission.

In the final act, five more years have passed and, with them, the zenith of the six men's lives. The worldly-wizened Ed is now a successful attorney at an otherwise all-white firm, chafing against a glass ceiling and his Brooks Brothers suit; Al is a successful real estate agent who absolves himself by writing checks; Tony has moved into the high-end car business; and Scott has moved into the high-end drug business. Charlie plans his retirement from the mill and a return to his boyhood home. Joe, the tragic figure who draws the men together for one final card game, looks to a day that has long passed him by and a future that is bleaker than any seedy apartment he has ever inhabited, his life soaked in boozy aspirations.

Director David Kote has built a taut production around the tremendous talents of his actors, several of whom cut their creative teeth at The Freddie Hendricks Youth Ensemble of Atlanta. A few glitches in the action and some faltering moments notwithstanding, the performances of the entire cast in this PushPush Theater show are compelling to an audience that is literally head to head with the actors in the minimally decorated black box venue. Vaughn's Charlie is a touching testament to hope and to the reality of suffering, while Ghant and Easter are almost pitch-perfect in this story of America's "haves" and "have nots." King, Hazard, and Martyn are top-notch in supporting roles that never seem to get lost in the clamor.

When Hazard's Scott says, "If I come back black in the next life, I will curse God and die," the anguish of the six former friends is palpable. This is one of the best performing ensembles yet put together by PushPush, which is building a solid reputation for craft within the Atlanta theatrical community. Pill Hill is a potent examination of broken promises and derailed dreams from the perspective of the African-American male.