Theatre Reviews

Pill Hill

pill hill
Pill Hill by Samuel L Kelley

By Samuel L. Kelley

Produced by eta Creative Arts Foundation

Art imitates life

It is always a shame to see a bundle of potential never fully realized. This is a major theme of Pill Hill, and sadly the case with this production. A fine ensemble of actors in a wonderful facility are set back by a sub par script and unfocused direction.

The title refers to an affluent south side neighborhood where those who own property have “made it”. Set in Chicago between 1973 and 1983, Pill Hill focuses on six African-American friends who all work in the local steel mill. The mill, a mantra of hope and doom used in the play, gives the illusion of a steady work but is only a hub for cutbacks and broken dreams. It was frightening how much these circumstances mirrored our current economy. Joe, the central character, has the dream but lacks the initiative to move up the ladder in or out of the mill. His friends see the writing on the wall and try to help him realize his potential, but ultimately Joe is his own worst enemy.


Playwright Samuel L. Kelley has an interesting premise, but does not stray from the path of obvious. Within the first fifteen minutes I knew where the play was going, but it took over two hours to get to an undeserved climax. Director Aaron Todd Douglas, inspired enthusiastic ensemble work, but did very little to fix the writing flaws. Kelley writes character types (the nerd, the old timer, the fallen athlete, the family man), and they are directed to be heightened stereotypes as seen in a 70’s sitcom.

I was excited to see Pill Hill because of the track record(s) of eta and Aaron Todd Douglas. Pill Hill is entertaining, but does not provide the stimulation to justify a $30 ticket.

Not Recommended

Chris Arnold

eta Creative Arts Foundation, Chicago IL, or call (773) 752-3955, tickets are $30 (with reduced rates for groups, seniors, students), Thursday-Saturday nights at 8pm, Sundays at 3&7pm, running time is 2 hours & 30 minutes with one ten-minute intermission. “2 for 1” are Thursdays at 8 and Sundays at 7.eta Creative Arts Foundation is located at 7558 S. South Chicago Avenue. Through August 9.

7 thoughts on “Pill Hill

  • Assetmanager

    I have to disagree with Mr. Arnold’s review and critique of “Pill Hill”.
    It is evident that Mr, Arnold has no concept of Black Men excepted what is shown on
    70’s sitcoms. The experiences that these men go through in a ten year span is not out of the ordinary for black men. Mr. Arnold knew where this story was going within the first 15 minutes because this story isn’t new or has it changed that much in the last 20 years (inspite of an African American President of the USA). I wished Mr. Arnold had really looked at these men as people instead of the white racist way of reducing them to stereotypes as he called them. If Mr. Arnold has 6 African American males freinds I would not only be surprised but shocked.
    Question! Would Mr. Arnold enjoyed this show more if it were less than $30.00? This review is a terrible injustice to the talents of Roston, Peoples & Adams who all did excellent work as well as the cast as a whole. But, they probably used to racism … I said the story has changed in 20 years.

  • I am sorry that you disagree with my criticism of Pill Hill. The play was not recommended because it did not look at the characters as men but relied on stereotype instead. The director had a talented cast, which was not used to its potential. I was insulted as a black man and so was my black friend who accompanied me, which negates your theory about the company I keep. Next, I have read and seen a plethora of African-American theater, which has covered the same material, but did not take the boring and obvious path of Pill Hill. To answer your question about the price, as a critic in this economy I could not tell people to pay $30 to see this production. Finally, your implication that I was a racist for having an opinion is not a progression, but a setback in a fight for equality.

    Chris Arnold

  • Assetmanager

    I never called you a racist. I would say that you are definetly a product of racism. Yes, this is true. You say that you have seen a “plethora of African-American theater,” yet I can find no other reviews of said productions. Makes one wonder. If I’m not mistaken this play, won a Jeff Award many years ago in Chicago. As a reviewer you must know that there are no new stories only old stories told in different ways. I liked this play. I as well as several other reviewers enjoyed this play and like myself “Highly Recommend” it. What other plays have you seen at ETA? I go to that theatre regularly and this is the best thing that they have done in at least 3 years (my opinion). That’s why major papers have stopped coming out to review their productions. Please inform me of ETA’s “track record. Other than 38 years of doing productions. I would love to know. Look forward to reading your reviews, you have an interesting take on things.

  • To Whom It May Concern-

    My statements below are meant to engage dialogue, not confrontation, so I hope you can reply with this in mind.

    While you did not say I was a racist, the statements from your argument (listed below) are implications of such.

    “I wished Mr. Arnold had really looked at these men as people instead of the white racist way of reducing them to stereotypes as he called them”.

    “But, they probably used to racism [sic]… I said the story has changed in 20 years”.

    Next, I question how you can say I am “definetly[sic] a product of racism”. What evidence do you have to back up this statement?

    It is true that I have seen and read more African-American plays than I have reviewed, but what does that “make one wonder”?

    I am aware that there are no new stories, only new ways of telling a story. The mark of a true artist is the ability to take a old story and make it new and relevant, which was my major issue with PILL HILL. Mr. Kelley was not telling me anything new, nor showing it to me from a new perspective. I guess this is why FENCES and TOPDOG/UNDERDOG have won The Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and DUTCHMAN and A RAISIN IN THE SUN are/ and will be studied in high schools and colleges for the rest of time, while PILL HILL remains (for the most part) unknown. The aforementioned plays have found new and exciting ways to explore the theme of unrealized potential and its consequences.

    Regarding eta’s track record, all I can tell you is friends and family have seen their past work and told me wonderful things. Which is why I was excited to see PILL HILL, and ultimately let down by the script and direction.

    Chris Arnold

  • Barbara Kensey

    What play did Chris Arnold see and what was his frame of mind when he saw it. This is one of the richest scripts by one of the finest writers working in theater today. Not to mention the fine direction and ensemble work on that stage. I recommend you read the review on for some real insight into this fine piece of work.

  • I agree with Mr. Arnold. It seems people are forgetting that this all is a matter of opinion. I have seen several plays at ETA. I have also helped with many of their Gala fundraisers and I have family members that are and where on the board of directors. That aside, this play did have excellent talent on stage but thirty minutes into the show you start not to care because you’ve seen it before. I understand that Pill Hill won a Jeff Award many years ago in Chicago but that was many years ago. At that time the leading emotion was probably ground-breaking but this is a remount. In my opinion a remount should either be as good or better than the original. As much as this play explored the surface of black men it really didn’t hit on any other factors of the men. For example, we know that Joe is his own worst enemy by wanting to leave and never getting the drive but we didn’t see any other parts of this character except for that. Like why was he so adamant about playing cards, was it because that was the only time he could feel equal or better than his friends? I’ve seen Mr. Roston before so I know he can perform other emotions of a character but this performance didn’t have it. I applud Pill Hill for showing different factors of the black male I wish it would have shown different levels of the black man.

  • Assetmanager

    I’m sure the actors, especially Mr. Roston performed within the constrictions of the play as it was written. The fact that there are several posts about this play speaks to the power of the play. No one cares about a bad play. A furthur examination the play you would reveal that Joe had the most potenial for success (very first scene with ED). The card game is a metaphor for life. Charlie constantly tells Joe that he can’t help him, he won’t be much help to him at the card game. Why? Because he’s in a different place in his life than Joe. Joe invested a lot of energy and talent into the actual card game instead of the game of life, which is where Ed invested his energies.

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