UPDATE: Relentless, which played to soldout houses through February 26, will be staged in Goodman Theatre’s Owen Theatre for a one-month run starting April 1. Buy tickets for $15-$45 here.
Playwright Tyla Abercrumbie’s Relentless is a gift to the Timeline Theatre audience. It is an unforgettable look into a Black family in early 20th century America. Two sisters are butting heads over what to do with their late mother’s home in a tony part of Philadelphia. Jaye Ladymore plays Janet who is a nurse and wants to keep her mother’s home in Philadelphia. Her socialite sister Annelle is played by Ayanna Bria Bakari. Annelle wants her life to remain in Boston with her physician husband Marcus (Travis Delgado). Janet is determined to continue her life as a healer like her late mother, who was a midwife. Janet and Annelle have been given the privilege of formal education through their mother’s hard work moving from slavery to a successful life in Philadelphia.
Note: The play, which closes February 26, also will be available for remote viewing for a limited time. See details at the end of this review.
Bakari and Ladymore are brilliant as sisters. Annelle is the dilettante who has had two marriages before finding Marcus. She revels in being a doctor’s wife as much as being the baby sister. Bakari exudes glowing energy. She is all bubbles, insouciance, and rapid-fire chatter that turns to an emotional baring of the soul. Bakari also plays the role of the sisters’ enslaved grandmother embodying the desperation of a mother determined to not have her daughter grow up a slave and to know her real name. Annelle seems to be the picture of the gadfly socialite until she is confronted with the reality of the era, and of her heritage. When Marcus tells the story of a Black woman who is refused accommodation at a Catholic hospital when she goes into labor, Annelle is forced to face secrets that could destroy her life. Marcus’ telling of a tragedy caused by the common refusal of care to Blacks in a Catholic hospital reverberates today. The anguish and rage are tempered skillfully by Delgado to move the character arc of Annelle into revealing her deepest secret.
Ladymore plays Janet with a restraint that barely conceals a volcano of rage brewing. She goes from prim and proper indulgent big sister to enraged and confrontational about the state of the Negro in America. Ladymore has even more amazing chemistry with Xavier Edward King as the wealthy Franklin who Annelle is determined to match with Janet who has refused to meet him. Franklin enters the stage and there is an instant heat with Janet. Their characters are educated, worldly, and share a fierce determination to make a reality of the goals of W.E.B. DuBois and Frederick Douglass. Their scene together is fun as they flirt back and forth while drinking a bottle of wine. Things turn serious and dark when Franklin reveals his origins as a child of rape by a slave master with his mother being poisoned by the jealous wife. He encourages Janet to read aloud from her mother’s journal. Her mother’s words are harrowing in their truth about life as an enslaved person. Demetra Dee as Annabelle Lee/Zhuukee and Rebecca Hurd as Mary Anna Elizabeth enact the stories on the pages of the journals.
Demetra Dee is brilliant as Annabelle/Zhuukee. She goes from a child trembling in the grass to a young woman still in servitude. Her cries when her mother leaves her are devastating. Rebecca Hurd as her mistress Mary Anna Elizabeth inhabits the role of a Southern woman of privilege but is a secret abolitionist. The mistress also harbors a physical yearning for her slave. While the stories of White men preying upon the enslaved, both women and men are common, it is rare to hear of relations between women. It is a twist in the story that reveals how the enslaved quite often had to go along to get along. Hurd has the accent and mannerisms of an indulged Southern Belle. Her emotional scenes with Dee are enraging and then poignant. The enslaver is usually the villain, but Hurd infuses her role with humanity avoiding the caricature of the Southern Belle.
Relentless is directed with precision and perfect pacing by Ron OJ Parson. This story and the characters are never overwrought, nor do they slip into what I call the “Black Rage” era of theater where every character is so dignified that it is an unrealistic portrayal of Black people. The writing is tight and beautifully done. Abercrumbie has done intensive research on the Black elite in America. There were elite and wealthy parts of cities where Blacks lived well and patronized their community businesses. Black people pulled themselves up by their bootstraps only to be knocked down by horrors like the Tulsa Massacre and race riots across America.
The character of Franklin mentions the race riot that started here in Chicago at Rainbow Beach in 1919 when young Eugene Williams drifted into “white waters” and was stoned to death, setting off what was called the “Red Summer” for all of the bloodshed and death. Abercrumbie also includes the names of Black pioneers of the organizations and movements for the betterment of Black people in America. Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and composer Florence Price are mentioned in what would be passing dialogue for some but impactful for those who know the names or are driven to look up some of these people when they leave the theater.
I love the way dialects are done in Relentless. Dialect director Sammi Grant has coached the actors in genuine accents and patterns of speech from that era and from the South. My grandmother was from the South but affected a refined dialect when she moved to Chicago. I suspect that the quick repartee and seamless dialogue is the work of both Parson and Grant. The set from scenic designer Jack Magaw is gorgeous and appropriate to that time. Beautiful wood, ornate upholstery, decorative cornices, and corbels flesh out a truly Victorian feel to the set. Costume designer Christine Pascual puts the characters from both eras into beautiful clothing.
Relentless is a look back in time that is mirrored in our century. We are living with a pandemic that compares to the Spanish Flu of 1919. We have seen shocking violence that is parallel to the stoning of Eugene Williams in the public murder of George Floyd or the secretive murder of Ahmaud Arbery brought to light by people who possess the same entitlement as the perpetrators of violence in the last three centuries.
All of this works together to give Chicago the world premiere of Relentless. I encourage everyone to go see it. It is an evening well spent that will leave you stunned and talking about it for some time.
Relentless by Timeline Theatre runs through February 26 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont. Tickets are $25-$57 and are available at www.timelinetheatre.com or by calling the TimeLine box office at 773-281-8463, ext. 6. Run time is three hours with one less.. As is t he new normal, please bring your Covid vaccine card for entry and wear a mask over the mouth and nose at all times to protect the actors, yourself, and others. Let’s keep live theater going.
Timeline also will offer a new way to see this critically acclaimed world premiere. Thanks to agreements with Actors’ Equity Association, Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, United Scenic Artists, playwright Tyla Abercrumbie, and members of the cast and production team, TimeLine is able to offer an on-demand, remote viewing option to see Relentless on Vimeo.