Theater Review: RELENTLESS (TimeLine Theatre)

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by Stephen Best on January 30, 2022

in Theater-Chicago


As the snow falls, a fire is currently smoldering centerstage at Theater Wit. This slow-burning ember is better known as the World Premiere, Relentless. Playwright Tyla Abercrumbie’s ferocious, fierce, determined and monolithic three-hour play is definitely a conversation starter. This parable confronts the societal pandemic of racism that has plagued this country for generations with no sign of a vaccine on the horizon. The play is purposely uncomfortable for its largely Caucasian audience while holding a magnifying glass to the turmoil in the country, which is matched by the turmoil in the play’s central characters: two sisters sharply divided by the existence of their treasured mother’s diaries.

Their recently deceased mother’s life, as chronicled in a trunk full of hand-written journals, fueled both comedic and dramatic social and political diatribes. Is it an invasion of privacy? Are the books required readings? What if the daughters don’t like what their mother has to say? What could she reveal and what would the fallout be? By definition, are diaries — written collection of private thoughts — for public consumption after the author has passed on? The sisters are of opposite minds, a narrative instrument perfectly plucked by prolific director Ron OJ Parson.

For a little backstory, Relentless began as a public reading back in 2018, part of TimeLine Theatre Company’s inaugural First Draft Playwrights Collective Festival and was greenlit to begin rehearsals in March of 2020 — just around the same time as the industry-wide COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. Fast-forward to 2022 and Abercrumbie’s Relentless has been fleshed out into a debut play for Timeline.

Set in 1919 Philadelphia during the Black Victorian age, we meet two opposing sisters in the opulent living room of a recently deceased woman. The sequin clad Annelle (Ayanna Bria Bakari) is a boisterous socialite not unlike Kim Field’s character “Regine” from the 90s sitcom, Living Single. Loud, self-centered, aloof and oh so very “married to a doctor,” the flightier of the sisters wants to sell of the house quickly and return to her posh life in Boston. The more grounded sister, Janet (Jaye Ladymore), is graceful, studious, cerebral, a nurse by profession, cautiously pouring over every page of said diaries, hungry for the stories her mother never shared while alive.

Told in flashbacks, the Mother, Zhuukee (aka Annabelle Lee) (Demetra Dee), began as the headstrong property of the slave owner’s daughter, Mary Elizabeth (Rebecca Hurd), a spoiled, selfish, southern belle who would later become instrumental in Zhuukee’s life. Used as a tool during her sexual awakening and teenage rebellion against her strict southern parents, their powerplay was never on equal footing, not even when Zhuukee was freed from her life of slavery. From petulance to abolitionist, Mary Elizabeth was nowhere near as “woke” as she pretended to be. Even when giving Zhuukee gifts, the gesture was met with resentment from Mary Elizabeth when Zhuukee didn’t respond exactly as wished.

As for the men in their lives, Annelle was married to outspoken physician, Marcus (Travis Delgado) who was also attempting to play matchmaker with winemaking friend, Franklin (Xavier Edward King) and the outspoken sister, Janet. These two have tremendous chemistry, constantly chattering over one another much like a Katherine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy movie or a Noël Coward play. Their initial combination of cheek and chic was totally enrapturing.

As the play continued, this quartet of affluent, educated and opinionated Black Americans were each pushed to their limits, unveiling facts both complicated and intricate, forever changing truths each held about one another. As they were pushing for their own personal agendas trying to define their own interpretations of inclusion, equality and respect, the 1919 Red Summer was about to explode, further complicating a racial divide that 100 years later is still burning red hot. The play’s final moments, that I will not dare spoil here, was an unnerving reminder that for every step forward, there are two steps back.

Complex, powerful and overly long, particularly in the second act, Relentless is an ambitious season debut that knocks it out of the park, even when it takes too long to get there. Wonderfully acted, cozy set design (Jack Magaw’s homey living room scenic design impressed) and solid costuming (Christine Pascual worked every penny of her costume budget) added to a compelling night out at the theater. Relentless proved itself unrelenting and required viewing.

photos by Brett Beiner Photography

TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave.
Wed thru Sat at 7; Sat & Sun at 2; Tues at 7 (Feb 22)
ends on February 26, 2022
for tickets, call 773.281.8463 x 6 or TimeLine

While supplies last, On Demand Remote Viewing tickets are available for purchase starting now through Sunday, February 27 at 8 p.m. Pay What You Will pricing options range from $35-$50 (inclusive of all fees). Relentless remote view ticket buyers will receive a unique link and password to a Vimeo stream of the full performance, which was captured on four cameras in front of a full house on Saturday, January 29.

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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