Although the play takes place in 1919, Tyla Abercrumbie’s RELENTLESS probes prescient themes of family secrets, inherited trauma, and the enduring legacy of racism for two affluent Black sisters living in the northern part of the United States. Director Ron OJ Parson remounts TimeLine Theatre Company’s production at the Goodman’s Owen Theatre after a sold-out initial run.
At the top of the play, Abercrumbie introduces sisters Annelle (Ayanna Bria Bakari) and Janet (Jaye Ladymore) at their childhood home in West Philadelphia. Annelle and Janet have gathered there to settle their late mother’s estate. Janet has also recently discovered their mother’s diaries. While she is eager to read them and learn more about her mother’s past, Annelle initially wants nothing to do with the documents. Jaent feels compelled to learn more about her mother’s history as a slave in the South, while Annelle shies away from reading what she considers private material. Likewise, while Janet and Annelle are affluent, well-educated, and are able to lead comfortable lives in the material sense, they are also reconciling with the fact that though slavery is no longer legal, their existence as Black Americans means they are far from free to do whatever they like.
For Janet, that means only serving Black patients as a nurse. That’s likewise the case for Annelle’s husband Marcus (Travis Delgado), a successful doctor who cannot gain access to white hospitals for his patients. In one particularly impactful moment, Marcus relays to Annelle and Janet that he had to travel 18 miles with a patient in labor to the nearest Black hospital; the baby died en route because the much closer white hospital denied him access. Likewise, Janet’s suitor Franklin (Xavier Edward King) is a successful wine maker, but the means by which he inherited his uncle’s winemaking business are complicated — and he had to fight off his white family members in order to take over the business.
Through these four characters, Abercrumbie cues up the question of what it means for them to inherit the trauma of their predecessors and to examine if their lives as Black Americans are that much improved with slavery as such a recent memory. As Annelle considers whether she and Marcus want to have children, the question becomes further complicated as she wonders if freedom from slavery truly means America will reach a place in which Black Americans can be free.
Abercrumbie’s three-hour play alternates between scenes from RELENTLESS’s 1919 present and flashbacks from Annelle and Janet’s mother’s diaries. In those scenes, we see their mother Zhuukee, otherwise known as Annabelle Lee (Demetra Dee) interacting with Mary Anna Elizabeth (Rebecca Hurd), the young woman she must serve. While it’s a more dynamic plot device than watching Annelle and Janet simply read from the diaries, these flashback scenes don’t necessarily always feel fully integrated into the play. Rather, they sometimes flit in and out without neatly fitting into the script.
Likewise, given that Abercrumbie’s play is so lengthy, I think it could serve from some judicious cuts. Abercrumbie gives audiences so much to unpack, but the characters also make circular arguments. Given their disillusionment and the weight of the relentless racism they face in West Philadelphia and America as a whole, it makes sense that the characters would grapple with the same issues repeatedly. But given that this is indeed a play, I think some of the repetition could be cut, and the points would still resonate as strongly. LIkewise, the second act loses some steam towards the end and has many scenes punctuated with potentially noteworthy final moments; plotwise, it becomes murky when the play may conclude. But Abercrumbie makes the final scene an absolute gut punch.
The stellar performances also bring RELENTLESS to vivid life. Bakari and Ladymore have such a realistic rapport as Annelle and Janet; they convey a real unconditional sisterly love. Likewise, both character arcs rely on these actors to display the full range of human emotion on the stage, and they easily meet that challenge convincingly and beautifully.
In the play’s second scene, Ladymore and King engage in the kind of electrifying banter that comes with meeting an intriguing potential new partner. And while RELENTLESS is certainly a heavy play, it’s not without humor — and the witty exchanges between Janet and Franklin supply that in spades. Delgado is a calming and empathetic presence as Marcus; he’s a terrific counterpart to Bakari, who plays Annelle’s seemingly carefree facade to the utmost in the earlier scenes. Dee and Hurd give haunting performances as Zhuukee and Mary Anna Elizabeth; it’s necessarily discomfiting to watch these two performers together given the nature of their relationship. And while I didn’t find their scenes to be the most integral in the script, they do well bringing them to life onstage.
RELENTLESS is a powerful exploration of the relentless legacy of racism in America. Abercrumbie provides stunning character studies at its center as the characters ask themselves how to move forward and how they might go about creating an America that is hopefully better for the next generation of Black Americans and filled with less hate.
Timeline Theatre Company’s RELENTLESS plays the Owen Theater at Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn. through May 8, 2022. Tickets are $15-$63 (subject to change). Visit GoodmanTheatre.org/Relentless.
Photo Credit: Liz Lauren
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com