Theater Review - American dream

PushPush’s Pill Hill portrays black class struggles

Samuel Kelley’s drama Pill Hill takes its title from a common nickname in American cities. In Atlanta, “Pill Hill” refers to the medical facilities that surround and include Northside Hospital. In Chicago, where Kelley’s play takes place, it’s the wealthiest African-American residential neighborhood.

The play, currently produced by PushPush Theater, treats Pill Hill as both a physical place and a universal location, like the idealized “mansion on the hill” that represents the better life. The play can be both unsubtle and overlong as it explores the changes and sacrifices that working-class African-Americans make to reach Pill Hill, but PushPush’s production team seems genuinely excited by the play’s broad scope and big ideas.

A Chicago steel mill unifies the six men who comprise Pill Hill’s characters. Some are lifelong employees, some are former workers, but they come together to play whist and celebrate special occasions in the basement apartment of Joe (Johnell J. Easter). In the opening scene, Joe’s best friend Ed (Neal A. Ghant) uses the card table to fill out a college application, suggesting that higher education, as the ticket out the mill, is the bigger “game” with the highest possible stakes.

Brash Joe insists that he’s going to go to college himself — he just wants to work at the mill long enough to get a few paychecks under his belt. It’s a refrain that Joe will sound throughout the play as the years pass. Other buddies include unhappily married Al (Enoch King) and fiery, aggressive Scott (a terrific Neal R. Hazard), a former star football player turned defensive mill employee.

As many as five years pass between each of Pill Hill’s three acts, revealing who’s getting ahead in the world and who’s being left behind. Slick salesman Tony (Duain Richmond Martyn) indicates class advancement through the merchandise he peddles: first encyclopedias and Bibles, then home insulation supplies, and finally luxury cars. Tony’s career also illustrates the price of success as he takes a job with a white company that sells dubious products in black neighborhoods.

Charlie (Tony Vaughn), a 20-year mill veteran, represents the change in generations. While young men like Ed and Al labor to put the mill behind them, for poor Mississippi sharecroppers of Charlie’s era, moving up north to a factory was the big advancement. Vaughn’s comfortable, rich acting style adds a solid foundation to any show he’s in, and he gets Pill Hill’s powerful speech. Charlie describes his triumphant return to Mississippi in his new Cadillac, which leads to terrifying harassment by racist Southern cops.

Pill Hill inevitably calls to mind the work of Pulitzer-winner August Wilson, who didn’t invent this kind of play but has nearly cornered the market on it. Kelley also reveals social trends through the seemingly casual conversation of African-Americans, against the backdrop of a major U.S. city’s history. Held up to Wilson’s example, Pill Hill’s plot mechanics prove too transparent, and the dialogue repetitively hits themes we can grasp fairly quickly.

Plus, with three acts, the play feels too drawn out. The final scene gives Ed a dilemma that sets his blue-collar heritage at odds with his white-collar achievement, but it seems to take forever for that conflict to emerge.

Director David Kote and most of his cast are alumni of the Freddie Hendricks Youth Ensemble of Atlanta, and they have slightly more enthusiasm than skill. Some moments strike an uncertain tone: When Al makes his first entrance, King plays the role at such a furious pitch that you expect a fight to break out, but his pique, as written, seems to be meant more as a vehicle for humor.

Pill Hill may not have a solid infrastructure, but it builds to powerful moments, including an ending that’s believably ambiguous. Pill Hill’s creative team may not achieve perfection, but it’s not for lack of hard work.