By Fran Zell
These things are always with us: Hatred, violence, and racism. They are Relentless, as embodied in the title of Tyla Abercrumbie’s gripping new play, having its world premiere with TimeLine Theatre Company at Theater Wit.
Beautifully directed by Ron OJ Parson, Relentless takes a look at these deadly societal sins from inside the eye of the storm, in other words, the perspective of an African American family. In this case it is a family comfortably ensconced in a world of cultural elegance then known (and little known today) as the Black Victorian era. It is 1919 Philadelphia, like now, a time of pandemic and racial turbulence, and back then, a time when slavery was still close enough to touch.
Annelle (Ayanna Bria Bakari) and Janet (Jaye Ladymore) are sisters, returned to their gracious Victorian childhood home after the death of their mother, who built a good life for her daughters as a midwife. They are there to settle her estate, never expecting that while sorting through her belongings, they would find a box of diaries. Janet can’t get enough of them, and Annelle refuses to look. The diaries detail the life their mother never told them about: her slave life. It was a life that erased her real name, Zhuukee, along with her history and identity. Her daughters knew their mother as Annabelle Lee, a name taken from an Edgar Allen Poe poem by Mary Elizabeth (Rebecca Hurd), the slaveowner’s daughter who received baby Zhuukee as a “gift” from her father. Annabelle Lee is a haunting poem, but through the lens of Zhuukee’s suffocating life with Mary Elizabeth, it’s macabre.
Relentless tells several stories. There is the story of Zhuukee (Demetra Dee), grotesque and Southern Gothic, enfolding through the diaries right there in the lovely living room where their mother had sheltered her daughters from evil. There is the story of the two sisters, replete with the usual sisterly love/hate emotions, further complicated by their disparate personalities and divergent approaches to being Black in a racist world.
“Your willingness to lean into your fears and embrace them frightens me,” Annelle tells Janet early on in the play, delineating the huge divide between them. Janet wants to change the world. Annelle wants to accommodate it.
Janet is single and a nurse, too focused on work and social justice issues to bother about men. Annelle, a bubbly socialite, married to a doctor, wants to see her older sister “settled.” This leads to a third, richly textured layer in the script dealing with the male perspective of the Black experience in 1919, and then again now, since little has changed. Franklin (Xavier Edward King), Janet’s dashing and handsome suitor, and Marcus (Travis Delgado), Annelle’s kind, loving husband, are also the children of slaves. Unlike the sisters, they were both seared by racial hatred and violence at an early age. They keep their wounds and anger hidden in the course of their robust daily lives, remindful of the “We Wear the Mask” Paul Dunbar poem on display in the Theater Wit lobby.
But the trauma that lives beneath the surface erupts in an achingly heartbreaking moment when they confess that what they really want from life—and most likely will never get—are power and revenge. Janet, for her part, wants revolution. Annelle just wants the courage to survive, lifting up a central question of the play.
Playwright Tyla Abercrumbie is a TimeLine Company Member and 2016-18 member of TimeLine’s Playwrights Collective, through which Relentless had a staged reading in 2018. With this play, she offers so much to contemplate about the human condition, white privilege, and the seemingly endless Black struggle for justice and equality.
All the characters are richly drawn, sympathetic and timeless. There is even a glimpse of humanity in Mary Elizabeth, the sociopathic slaveowner, who considers herself a “good” person. She thereby becomes almost a prototype for the “well-intentioned” liberal that Martin Luther King Jr. warned was the biggest detriment to racial justice. There is a brief moment between the sisters toward the end of the play that broaches on melodrama. But overall this is a powerful and stunning new work, seamlessly performed by a talented cast, and deftly produced by one of Chicago’s finest theaters.
Relentless, is a TimeLine Theatre Company production, directed by Ron OJ Parson. It runs through February 26, 2022 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. It is written by Tyla Abercrumbie and features Ayanna Bria Bakari, Rebecca Hurd, Xavier Edward King, Jaye Ladymore, Demetra Dee and Travis Delgado. Tickets start at $42, with discounts available for students, military personnel, and first responders. Covid protocols are in place. For more information visit timelinetheatre.com or call the TimeLine Box Office at 773-281-8463 x6.