The year 1919 is having a theatrical moment this season in Chicago, even with Steppenwolf postponing the world premiere of Eve L. Ewing’s 1919 (which was originally slated to open this week as part of the Steppenwolf for Young Adults series) until fall of 2022. That watershed year in American history comes to complicated and compelling life in TimeLine’s world premiere production of Tyla Abercrumbie’s Relentless.
Abercrumbie, who has won national attention for her starring role in the Showtime series The Chi, was supposed to see her play on its feet with TimeLine back in 2020, but the delay has only made it feel even more vital and timely. The references to the 1918 influenza pandemic (which was still going strong in 1919) and the growing “Red Summer” of Black Americans fighting back against white supremacy (in Chicago, but also in Elaine, Arkansas, where Black sharecroppers protesting their economic exploitation were massacred; in Washington, D.C.; and many other cities) fits well with our own era of COVID-19 and the protests against police killings in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
Through 2/26: Wed-Fri 7 PM, Sat 2 and 7 PM, Sun 2 PM; also Tue 2/22, 2 PM, Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, 773-281-8463, timelinetheatre.com, $42-$57 (35 percent off students, $25 for U.S. military personnel, veterans, first responders, and their spouses/family). Limited number of tickets for streaming recorded version of a live performance are available through Sun 2/27, 8 PM, $35-$50.
Set in Philadelphia (with flashbacks to a Maryland plantation before and after the Civil War), Relentless (directed by Ron OJ Parson) centers two sisters who have come from Boston to clear out the house of their late mother, Annabelle Lee, a former enslaved woman who became a midwife to the community after moving to the City of Brotherly Love—which had its own race riot in 1918. Janet (Jaye Ladymore), the oldest, is unmarried and a nurse, while Annelle (Ayanna Bria Bakari), the youngest, is married to Marcus (Travis Delgado), a successful doctor.
At the outset, Annelle tries to coax Janet to join them for dinner with Franklin (Xavier Edward King), a politically engaged friend and, in Annelle’s words, “a mulatto.” But Janet is more interested in staying home and reading through the trunkful of journals their mother left behind, which distresses Annelle greatly; she sees it as a violation of their mother’s privacy. Over the course of nearly three hours, the outlines of their mother’s life as the enslaved companion to a young white woman, Mary Anna (Rebecca Hurd), as well as a few secrets of their own, come to the foreground.
But the play isn’t just about exploring the past; it’s about pondering what the future might hold in an age of both unrest and promise. In 1919, women are on the verge of getting the right to vote, but that mostly means just white women, of course, even though Ida B. Wells refused to stay at the back of the line during a segregated suffrage march in Washington in 1913. Black men proved their mettle as soldiers in WWI, only to come home and face lynch mobs. Even Franklin’s financial success—he owns a wine company—faces the looming threat of Prohibition.
It’s a fascinating era, and one that we don’t often see from the point of view of characters like the ones Abercrumbie has created, compared to the stories told onstage and on film about Black people trying to survive in the Jim Crow south. The characters in Relentless aren’t facing the grim economic deprivation that drove the sharecroppers in Elaine to organize. But the relative comfort that they enjoy (some of it rooted in complex relationships to white people) doesn’t save them from the dread of knowing that they can be targeted at any time in a country so thoroughly saturated in white supremacy and violence.
As Janet delves deeper into her mother’s story, we learn more about Zhuukee, as Annabelle Lee was named by her own mother on the plantation. Demetra Dee as Zhuukee/Annabelle Lee embodies the split in identity and history for Black Americans in more than name. At one point, Mary Anna gives her a locket with a photo of Annabelle Lee’s long-dead mother inside it. Annabelle Lee stands holding that photo up to a mirror, seeing the reflection of herself looking at the face of the woman who gave up her life to save her daughter. But Mary Anna wants to see the locket closed around Annabelle Lee’s neck (it’s a choker, naturally) as a reminder of her own white largesse. It’s a brilliant encapsulation of how even white people who believe that they’re “good” compared to those around them practice erasure of Black people’s lives.
The show is a little slow to take off in the first act, with the badinage between the two sisters feeling slightly self-conscious. But as the story unfolds, Abercrumbie shows us more and more of how their familial roles (Janet the steadfast politically engaged one, Annelle the seeming party girl/socialite) are also just inadequate reflections of who they really are, and what their history might be pointing them toward. Both Ladymore and Bakari find deep resonant notes as they come to grips with what that future might hold. Delgado and King also peel back the polished white-tie outlines of their characters to show that becoming successful Black men in their communities has also come by way of facing anguish and loss at the hands of whiteness.
Relentless is the first in a planned trilogy by Abercrumbie. Right now, Donja R. Love’s Fireflies, part of his trilogy of plays about Black queer love in U.S. history, is at Northlight Theatre, while the Goodman presents a revival of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean , set in 1904 and chronologically the first in his monumental Century Cycle on Black lives in the 20th century. Abercrumbie’s big-hearted and complex portrait of “Black Victorians,” particularly Black women, standing on the verge of great change, as well as Parson’s vibrant cast, provide a sturdy foundation for her further explorations.