For three acts, we watch the lives of six men unfold. They are not friends -- they're mill buddies. They've toiled together in a Chicago steel mill, sweating beneath the blast furnaces and wondering how to escape the tedium. They are all African American, and the year is 1973 -- the height of the Vietnam War, only a decade after the violent end of legal segregation. In a troubled world, the mill offers these men sanctuary, kinship, unionized labor and enough money to buy Cadillacs. But the benefits do not include education or respect. One by one, the mill buddies leave the mill, enroll in school, risk starvation and climb the social ladder.
Competitive capitalism requires someone to win and someone to fail. The play ends in 1983 -- Reagan's America -- and we see how the "friends" shaped up: There is a lawyer, a salesman, a real-estate agent, a retiree, a coke-dealer and an out-of-work drunk, one swig away from homelessness. There is no question who has failed: Joe, the man who missed every chance, who hesitated before every open door, now subsists on food drives and pawn-shop money. But the winners are hazier: Success brings uncomfortable obligations, and among black elites, it often means epic betrayal.
Director Mark Clayton Southers -- himself a mill-worker -- has drilled his cast to perfection. Jonathan Berry, David Conley, Wali Jamal, Freedome Murphy, Maurice Redwood and Ezra Smith form one of the finest ensembles this critic has ever seen. The dialogue crackles, the humor elates, the monologues crush without mercy. Even a game of cards, played in its entirety and spanning a full five minutes, provides riveting drama.
If you have ever sought perspective on urban life and what it means to be black in America, Pill Hill offers insight. Now more than ever, New Horizon Theater lives up to its name.
Pill Hill continues through June 3. Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, 5941 Penn Ave., East Liberty. 412-431-0773