Title: Relentless. Playwright: Tyla Abercrumbie
At: Timeline Theatre Company at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: $42-$57; TimelineTheatre.com . Runs through: Feb. 26
The scholarly history of African immigrants in North America is all too often restricted to the topics of slavery (abolished by white men in 1863) and civil-rights unrest (attendant on anti-war protests in the 1960s)myopic views reinforcing popular stereotypes of a rootless minority awaiting rescue by their betters. The lingering prevalence of this narrow focus is why every minute of Tyla Abercrumbie's long-anticipated play arrives accompanied by tacit fanfares heralding its divergence from the same shopworn narratives.
To begin with, our chronological setting is 1919the Emancipation Proclamation more than fifty years past, the first World War still a vivid memory and a deadly epidemic of influenza hindering efforts at homeland recovery. Geographically, we are in the big city of Philadelphia, in a stately brownstone mansion housing the maternity clinic owned and operated by the late Annabelle Lee (birth name: Zhuukee) Covington, where the two daughters of the former Maryland slaveJanet, a trained nurse; and Annelle, now married to her third husband, a doctorhave come to dispose of their deceased mother's property. These family members are uniformly educated, articulate, financially secure and socially-prominent, as is the brash young Vintner introduced as a potential suitor to the unmarried elder sister.
The discovery of several journals cached away among the matriarch's personal possessions, however, threatens the veneer of complacency adopted by the sisters in an attempt to deny the unease haunting those whose fortunes are sourced in mystery and silence. Despite their hesitation at the prospect of what their curiosity may disclose (in particular Annelle, for whom any news can only be bad) and that of the men who love them, the factssome sorrowful, some sweet, much of it shocking and none of it anticipatedemerge with the inevitability of classic tragedy, and in doing so, banish the fear engendered by secrets left unspoken only to bring regret and remorse to those choosing to remain ignorant.
Abercrumbie's multi-generational saga received its first reading in 2018, following its commission by Timeline Theatre for production in 2020, only to find itself delayed for what turned out to be an abundance of leisure for revisions, text analysis, tech inventory and preparations ensuring the highest quality of every detail welcoming audiences back to live theater. The care and attention invested by director Ron OJ Parson, his ensemble of tireless actors and a team of superlative craftspersons, is evident in the agility with which the individual personae deftly navigate real-world references embedded in the dialogue, trading repartee with never a stumble for the speedy three hours (including an intermission for refreshments) needed for both the characters, and us, to acknowledge the value of knowing the TRUTH, as well as the wisdom of revealing it to those who are still living.