In engaging play ‘Relentless,’ the diaries of a mother once enslaved unnerve the next generation
Considering it was originally meant to premiere in 2020, it’s remarkable how timely “Relentless” proves at a moment in 2022 when so many are expressing an aversion to engaging with history.
In 1919 Philadelphia, a city still feeling the lingering effects of both the Great War and the deadly influenza pandemic, two sisters have returned to their childhood home to handle their late mother’s affairs.
Annelle (Ayanna Bria Bakari), the seemingly frivolous younger sister, is eager to sell the house and return home to her comfortable life in Boston. Older sister Janet (Jaye Ladymore), a bookish nurse who remains unmarried despite her sister’s best efforts, is having second thoughts about selling the home that also served as a hub and vital resource for Philadelphia’s Black population.
When: Through Feb. 26
Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Run time: 3 hours, with one intermission
Their mother, whom they knew as Annabelle Lee, was born into slavery in Maryland, and in her free years became — as another character puts it — “the community’s ‘go-and-see’ woman.” But Janet and Annelle know little of their mother’s past, about which she rarely spoke. As the curtain rises on “Relentless,” however, Janet has discovered a trunk full of their mother’s private diaries. While Janet feels compelled to get a fuller picture of who Annabelle was, Annelle is unnerved by the diaries’ existence, and would rather burn them unread.
Untangling both Annabelle’s past and Annelle’s reluctance to learn about it are through lines of Tyla Abercrumbie’s new play premiering at TimeLine Theatre Company. But “Relentless” has plenty to say as well about the present — its characters’, and ours.
While the title may seem better suited to a Liam Neeson thriller or a sci-fi page-turner than to a period family drama, “Relentless” fits: Abercrumbie’s subject, you could say, is the persistence of anti-Black cruelty and the generational trauma that couldn’t be waved away with slavery’s end.
Playwright Abercrumbie, a TimeLine company member best known here as an actor, is interested in the Black Victorians — part of a generation that preceded the Harlem Renaissance and the Jazz Age. As represented by Janet and Annelle, they adopted Victorian fashions, were classically educated and might have achieved affluence and professional and social success.
Yet as Annabelle’s diaries remind her daughters, they are only a generation removed from enslavement, and the reminder makes the limits of their relatively comfortable lives chafe. Annelle wonders if she can bring a child into a world where she harbors a constant fear that her husband, Marcus (Travis Delgado), will catch the ire of the wrong white person and find himself at the hands of a lynch mob.
Marcus, a doctor who serves Black patients in Boston, tells the story of a woman in labor who was turned away by a Catholic hospital in the city, and whose baby didn’t survive the 18-mile trip to the Black hospital outside of town.
Marcus’ friend Franklin (Xavier Edward King), an opinionated charmer who shows up as a love interest and sparring partner for Janet, recounts dehumanizing treatment by the family of his white father, who raped his mother, a slave.
And Janet, righteously furious after reading of her mother’s past life and her grandmother’s horrifying death, says that what she wants is “revenge! Retaliation.” But she knows she can never have it, so she’ll work for a better future instead.
Abercrumbie’s plotting is quite dense — we also get flashbacks depicting the fraught relationship between young Annabelle (Demetra Dee) and the girl she was made to serve (Rebecca Hurd), only a few years older than herself. And while Abercrumbie’s dialogue is bracing and truthful (and, lest this sound like a dour lecture of a play, often quite funny), her characters tend to repeat themselves and argue in circles. At three hours with intermission, her script could use some trimming.
Director Ron OJ Parson keeps the pace steady, though, and terrific performances will keep you engaged. The sisterly bond between Ladymore’s Janet and Bakari’s Annelle is particularly affecting. And from scenic designer Jack Magaw’s well-appointed drawing room to Christine Pascual’s formalwear to Megan E. Pirtle’s period wigs, the production is a visual treat.
One last point: TimeLine’s mission is rooted in plays that wrestle with history and the present day; as the company puts it, “exploring today’s topics through the lens of the past.”
Considering it was originally meant to premiere in the spring of 2020, it’s remarkable how timely “Relentless” proves at a moment in 2022 when so many are expressing an aversion to engaging with history — as Union League Club members object to hearing from the author of The 1619 Project, and some state legislatures attempt to ban the teaching of topics like slavery and race in ways that might cause students to feel discomfort. Abercrumbie’s play will likely create some discomfort in the audience. We’d do well to sit in it.