Playwright, actor, director, and artist Tyla Abercrumbie remembers when she was called to theater as clear as day. Blue lights beamed from a ceiling as Alvin Ailey dancers weaved and flowed with silk fabrics, making grade school Tyla feel like she was swimming in an ocean as the company of dancers performed their “Wade in the Water” number.
“It was so fantastic. Even to this day it gives me goosebumps, because I saw these beautiful dancers doing this magic,” she says. “I had never seen anything created like that before my eyes. I never forgot that. I wanted to create magic like that on stage.”
Since then, Abercrumbie has written a number of plays that have premiered in Chicago and across the region.
As a young girl growing up in Austin, close to the border of Oak Park, in the late 70s and 80s, Abercrumbie thought that Chicago was a place to leave, enduring an uncomfortable but all-too-familiar cold every winter and navigating a neighborhood without many resources. She primarily grew up with her mother and two older sisters, describing her family as “rich in mind, body, and spirit, we just didn’t have money.”
Sometimes joining her eldest sister at work at Alternatives community center on the north side, Abercrumbie began to experience more of Chicago that helped her imagine the possibilities of a fuller life here.
She was often watched by one of her older sisters, who encouraged the budding performer to read the books she read in high school when Abercrumbie was a bit younger. She began to read plays like Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (which she would later assistant direct for TimeLine Theatre in 2013) and report back on all that she’d learned.
“She made me give her a book report, or act it out. So I started this whole storytelling [thing] so that I could tell her what it was about and let her know that I read it. She introduced me to the stories of Langston Hughes,” Abercrumbie explains. “I knew about Langston Hughes as a poet, because we read them in grade school, but she was reading his books, like [stories about] Jesse B. Semple. So I always credited her for giving me permission to be creative and to read these stories that were so adventurous.”
As she became clearer on her purpose as a playwright and actress, Abercrumbie developed a plan: to graduate high school, move to the north side, then leave Chicago for UCLA or to be a foreign exchange student in Paris. At first, the plan had more to do with being in a place where she felt less vulnerable, as she was constantly trying to avoid street harassers in her neighborhood. But as she became a working actress, she realized industrial and commercial work was where the money was in acting in Chicago, and it would become her focus before pursuing television and film roles.
But before that, she needed to get training in college. So she moved out to live on her own at 18 years old and enrolled at Roosevelt University. Dissatisfied with the program, she subsequently enrolled at Columbia College where she saw a clearer path to the stage. After a brief stint with accounting, she remained in the theater department while working full-time. She worked at hotels and retail stores downtown, and eventually landed at ETA Creative Arts in Grand Crossing, where she had her first production.
“That gave me the courage to realize as much as I love ETA, I needed to make more money. I asked myself, ‘How do you make more money at this?’ So I got an agent,” she explains. “That agent allowed me to do commercial work and print work. I realized I could make money and do theater out of passion as I gradually kept building more on my resume. And the more I did, the more I realized, I can do this.”
Still, during the ups and downs of the beginning of her career, Abercrumbie worked as an executive assistant in corporate America, until she was laid off and came to the conclusion that corporate America was not for her; she was meant to be an artist. So in 2000, she took the leap as a full-time actress, and since then has had television roles in The Tracy Morgan Show, Shrink, and more. In 2003, she finally completed the next part of her plan: to move to Los Angeles.
“I was doing all right. I mean, I had a manager. I was booking here and there and working in a retail store. And I just remember feeling like, ‘Is this what I want? Do I want to act or do I want to sell clothes?’ I was being offered some theater jobs in Chicago, but I was in LA. I was doing too much retail,” she said. “So I asked myself, ‘What’s the goal? To act or to be famous?’ The goal was to act. I came back to Chicago visiting, and it turned into booking something and staying.”
After those five years in LA, she realized that Chicago was home and it was a home where she could also live out her dreams.
Today, you can find Abercrumbie in one of her most well-known recurring roles, as Nina in Showtime’s The Chi. Nina is mom to two kids, Kevin and Keisha, who are navigating being young people and finding themselves. Nina, her two children, and her wife Dre live on the south side and show a type of family that absolutely exists in Chicago, but that we rarely ever see on screen.
“This is the first time I’ve seen this on television. These are regular women just trying to raise their kids. That made me very excited and it still does make me very excited to have that kind of presence, where you’re talking about people who you don’t see in the community because nobody’s walking around pointing them out. They’re just people,” she says. “Normally when you see a gay couple on TV, there’s the Black wife and the white wife, and the brown child and they live in this very affluent way. They’ve got excellent jobs and everybody’s wearing designer clothes. This is the non-one-percenters I’m representing, which is great.”
When I spoke to Abercrumbie, she was in Los Angeles working on the west coast premiere of Paradise Blue by Dominique Morisseau, playing a character named Silver—a role she previously played at TimeLine in 2017. When the run ends, she’ll be back in Chicago preparing for the premiere of her play Relentless at TimeLine (opening in previews January 19), which was originally slated to open in May 2020, before COVID-19 intervened.
“It takes place in 1919. It’s about the Black Victorian. It grapples with a family coming together to realize how history has formed them. These two sisters examine their history through their mother’s experience and in addition, they’re dealing with everything that’s going on in 1919,” she says in a video for TimeLine. “It was a pivotal time in history because you had the [first world] war ending in 1918, the unrest of 1919, and then of course Prohibition is coming in 1920, and of course you have the suffragette movement.”
When looking back at her multifaceted career, Abercrumbie remains optimistic about what’s to come. She hopes to earn acting roles in voiceover animation and layered roles in films, and she never sees herself putting her pen down.
Despite former agents who hadn’t taken her work as seriously, working in a theater community that at points failed to provide diverse roles, and being from an under-resourced community, Abercrumbie has persisted and created the life of her dreams here in Chicago. As more television shows begin to film in the city and the prospect of new film studios here grows, it’s clear that the world is only now catching up to what Tyla Abercrumbie already knew.
“I love the city. I love the groundedness of the people, especially being in the industry I’m in in particular. When you’re in certain places, it’s always about the business. The collective in Chicago, we’re just not that way,” said Abercrumbie. “It’s something grounded about the artistic world in the midwest. That means a lot to me. This is what I do, not who I am. I’m so much more than being an artist, but I am still very much an artist.”