Playwright Tyla Abercrumbie Tirelessly is a gift for the audience of the Timeline Theater. It’s a unforgettable look at a black family in early 20th century America. Two sisters wonder what to do with their late mother’s house in an upscale Philadelphia neighborhood. Jaye Ladymore plays Janet who is a nurse and wants to keep her mother’s house in Philadelphia. Her socialite sister Annelle is played by Ayanna Bria Bakari. Annelle wants her life to stay in Boston with her doctor husband Marcus (Travis Delgado). Janet is determined to continue her life as a healer like her late mother, who was a midwife. Janet and Annelle were privileged to receive a formal education through the hard work of their mother, who rose from slavery to a successful life in Philadelphia.
Bakari and Ladymore are brilliant as sisters. Annelle is the dilettante who had two marriages before finding Marcus. She relishes being a doctor’s wife as much as being the little sister. Bakari radiates radiant energy. She’s all bubbly, carefree, and quick chatter that turns into an emotional stripping of the soul. Bakari also stars as the sisters’ enslaved grandmother embodying the desperation of a mother determined not to grow her daughter into a slave and find out her real name. Annelle appears to be the image of the gadfly socialite until she is confronted with the reality of the times, and her legacy. When Marcus tells the story of a black woman who is denied accommodation in a Catholic hospital as she gives birth, Annelle is forced to face secrets that could destroy her life. Marcus’ account of a tragedy caused by the common denial of care to black people in a Catholic hospital resonates today. Anguish and rage are skillfully tempered by Delgado to bring Annelle’s character arc to revealing her deepest secret.
Ladymore plays Janet with a restraint that barely hides a brewing volcano of rage. She goes from indulgent big sister to angry and confrontational about the state of Negroes in America. Ladymore has even more amazing chemistry with Xavier Edward King as the wealthy Franklin whom Annelle is determined to match with Janet who refused to meet him. Franklin walks onto the stage and there’s instant warmth with Janet. Their characters are educated, worldly, and share a fierce determination to achieve the goals of WEB DuBois and Frederick Douglass. Their scene together is funny as they flirt while drinking a bottle of wine. Things get serious and dark when Franklin reveals his origins as a child of rape by a slave master, his mother being poisoned by the jealous woman. He encourages Janet to read her mother’s diary aloud. His mother’s words are heartbreaking in their truth about life as a slave. Demetra Dee as Annabelle Lee/Zhuukee and Rebecca Hurd as Mary Anna Elizabeth bring the stories to the pages of newspapers.
Demetra Dee is brilliant as Annabelle/Zhuukee. She goes from a child trembling in the grass to a young woman still in bondage. Her cries when her mother leaves her are devastating. Rebecca Hurd as her mistress Mary Anna Elizabeth plays the role of a privileged Southern woman but is a secret abolitionist. The mistress also harbors a physical desire for her slave. While stories of white men preying on slave women and men are common, it is rare to hear about relationships between women. It’s a twist in the story that reveals how slaves quite often had to get along to get along. Hurd has the accent and manners of an indulgent Southern Belle. His emotional scenes with Dee are enraged and then poignant. The slaver is usually the villain, but Hurd imbues his role with humanity by avoiding the caricature of the Southern Belle.
Tirelessly is conducted with precision and perfect rhythm by Ron OJ Parson. This story and the characters never get overwhelmed, nor do they slide into what I call the ‘Black Rage’ era of theater where every character is so dignified that this is an unrealistic depiction of black people. The writing is tight and beautifully done. Abercrumbie has researched America’s black elite extensively. There were elite and affluent neighborhoods in cities where black people lived well and frequented their community businesses. Black people rose by their bootstraps to be knocked down by horrors like the Tulsa Massacre and race riots across America.
Franklin’s character mentions the race riot that started here in Chicago at Rainbow Beach in 1919 when young Eugene Williams drifted into “white waters” and was stoned to death, sparking what has been called “the red summer” for all the bloodshed and death. Abercrumbie also includes the names of black pioneers of organizations and movements for the betterment of black people in America. Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and composer Florence Price are mentioned in what would be fleeting dialogue for some but impactful for those who know the names or are driven to seek out some of these people as they leave the theater.
I like the way the dialects are done in Tirelessly. Dialect director Sammi Grant trained the actors in authentic accents and speech patterns of that era and the South. My grandmother was from the South but touched a refined dialect when she moved to Chicago. I suspect the quick repartee and smooth dialogue are the work of Parson and Grant. The decor by set designer Jack Magaw is magnificent and appropriate for this era. Beautiful woods, ornate upholstery, decorative cornices and corbels give the whole a truly Victorian feel. Costume designer Christine Pascual puts characters from both eras in beautiful clothes.
Tirelessly is a step back in time that is reflected in our century. We live with a pandemic that compares to the Spanish flu of 1919. We have seen shocking violence that parallels the stoning of Eugene Williams in the public murder of George Floyd or the secret murder of Ahmaud Arbery brought to light by people who have the same right as the perpetrators of violence over the past three centuries.
It all works together to give Chicago the world premiere of Tirelessly. I encourage everyone to go see it. It’s an evening well spent that will leave you stunned and talking about it for a while.
Tirelessly by Timeline Theater runs through February 26 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont. Tickets cost between $25 and $57 and are available at www.timelinetheatre.com or by calling the TimeLine box office at 773-281-8463, ext. 6. The duration is three hours with an intermission. As is the new normal, please bring your Covid vaccine card for entry and wear a mask over your mouth and nose at all times to protect the cast, yourself and others. Let’s continue the live theater.
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