The play takes place over 10 years. It is structured in three acts, each five years apart. It begins in the late seventies as six African-American steel mill workers meet to play cards and hang out. Not all the steel mill workers are happy. One, Ed, has in fact quit the mill and gone to college in the hopes of becoming a lawyer. He is trying to convince his friend, Joe, to get out of the mill and go to college with him. Both are in their early 20's. There is an older mill worker, Charlie, for whom the mill and its union and stability were his salvation from the cotton fields of Mississippi. The Mill and its changing place in the lives of these men is an important part of this play. From the dead end that Ed believes it to be, to the stepping stone that others see it as, to the pride of place it gave Charlie, the mill hangs over everyone in this play.
There are three other characters: Scott, a former football running back now languishing in the mill; Al, whose wife's demands that they move to the suburbs pushes him to find a better path to the middle class; and Tony who is a born salesman and makes up for his lack of a college degree by selling everyone everything. As a white person I can't say whether this play correctly conveys the banter of real black men, especially from a bygone era. Some of it feels a bit stereo typed but the author is black so I can only assume it is authentic. It's a bit like reading an August Wilson play only it covers a longer period of time.
In each act the characters advance or retreat from their goals. By Act 3 Ed has become the first black lawyer hired by a big downtown law firm, Joe has stagnated but continues to claim that one day he will get himself together and join Ed in his success. Joe has however finally lost his job after numerous run ins with an unseen supervisor, Shep. In the past, the union has helped him to keep his job,but this time with the mill soon to close, he has finally overstayed his welcome. He is now an alcoholic and will soon be evicted from his apartment. Al has become a successful real estate salesman, and Tony a successful car salesman. Charlie after heartbreakingly losing what seemed like a sure promotion in Act 2 has finally retired. Scott has also left the mill and become a drug runner who claims to work int the music business.
The play is a good, solid example of a well made play. It is very well structured in a nice circle, beginning and ending with Ed and Joe alone. There is one long monologue that describes Charlie's ill fated trip to show off his new found mill wealth to his Mississippi relations that is very harrowing and upsetting. It would pack more punch if it were not a too familiar story abuse at the hands of southern police. One wishes this were not so.
The ending is unresolved with Joe's fate hanging and the Ed caught in a moral dilemma about staying at the fancy law firm which wants to use him to legitimize some of its more controversial cases. He wants to quit but his friends want him to remain as a symbol of black accomplishment. This play does a good job covering the Regan years and how the closing of factories and the loss of union jobs wreaked havoc on the working poor, especially in urban neighborhoods like Chicago.