In a program book interview for TimeLine Theatre Company's world premiere of “Relentless,” playwright Tyla Abercrumbie is asked about authors who influenced her. After listing several from Lorraine Hansberry to Shakespeare, she says “Damaged people navigating life and circumstance. That's who I want to watch on stage.”
Damaged people trying to make the best of it is exactly what she gives us in “Relentless,” which originated four years ago as part of TimeLine's Playwrights Collective to support new works inspired by history that connect to today's social and political issues. The play was about to start rehearsals when COVID-19 shut down theaters in March of 2020. Now, it’s finally kicking off the company's 25th anniversary season.
These aren't people we're accustomed to seeing on stage, however. The play is set in 1919, and the characters are well-educated, affluent African American professionals who, in the wake of World War I, are grappling with great social changes ranging from the women's suffrage movement to riots born of persistent racism.
They also are very complicated and, in the course of three hours, each has to confront his or her personal demons. Thanks to a stellar cast and Ron OJ Parson's savvy direction, they come vividly to life as they deal with the past, present and future.
Two very different sisters, each relentless in her own way, are at the center of the story. Their mother has died recently, and they've returned from Boston to their childhood home in Philadelphia to settle her estate. Janet (Jaye Ladymore), the quieter older sister, is a nurse who has kept her promise to mom to always take care of her younger sibling. Annelle (Ayanna Bria Bakari) is a boisterous, bossy socialite who is determined to get her way, though we later learn she's been keeping a secret and is wracked with guilt.
They clash almost immediately in the long (too long) first act. Annelle, dressed for the evening in a splendid sequined coat (costumes by Christine Pascual), wants Janet to come out to dinner with her and her doctor husband, Marcus (Travis Delgado). She's set on introducing her sister to Franklin (Xavier Edward King), a light-skinned man who has earned his fortune as a winemaker. She thinks he would be a perfect match.
Janet refuses to go, no matter how much Annelle badgers her. She's discovered a big wooden box of journals written by their mother Annabelle Lee and has become engrossed in reading them. She also admits that she doesn't really want to sell their mother's handsome Victorian house (impeccable scenic design by Jack Magaw).
Annelle is outraged to the point of being almost panicky. She insists that the journals represent their mother's private thoughts and should not be read by anyone else. She also is eager to sell the house, where Annabelle Lee had her midwifery business, and return to Boston.
The real reasons for Annelle's anger remain a mystery until much later, but in the interim Janet — and we — learn the story of Annabelle Lee her daughters never knew. The words of the journals leap off the pages in scenes as Janet reads them, first to herself and then to Franklin, who shows up unannounced with a bottle of wine, leading the pair to spar and flirt while getting tipsy.
Born a slave and named Zhuukee (Demetra Lee) by her mother, who leaves her initially for unexplained reasons, the young girl is given to her master's daughter, Mary Anna Elizabeth (Rebecca Hurd), who names her Annabelle Lee (not for the poem, it turns out). Their relationship unfolds over several decades, as Janet and then the others dip into the journals at random, and is enlightening in its complexity. Although Janet gets justifiably mad and wants retribution for Mary's treatment of her “property,” we can see that Mary is a victim of her own upbringing and ultimately tries to redress the wrongs done to the woman she loves.
Meanwhile, Janet and Franklin share an activism that intensifies as unrest sparked by the 1919 riots in Chicago looms outside their door. Marcus, urged by his wife to further his career by taking a position in a white hospital, reveals a horrific racist incident that explains why he doesn't. This ultimately leads Annelle to face truths about herself she's been avoiding, though it isn't clear (to me at least) whether she fully realizes that she has been her own worst enemy.
The ending is simultaneously shocking and hopeful, a sign of the ongoing struggle and resilience that propel the action into the present. But what I find most impressive is how much I cared about each and every one of Abercrumbie's characters.
Kudos also to every aspect of the physical production, except perhaps drum music that seemed incongruous. “Relentless” also would benefit from some judicious trimming and a bit of clarification here and there, but is one of the more compelling new works I've seen in a while.