New Play ‘Relentless’ Explores Victorian Era Through Lives of a Black Family

Television and movies have long left viewers immersed in the Victorian era. 

Now, a new show at the Goodman Theatre is exploring what that period was like for Black Americans. Arts Correspondent Angel Idowu introduces us to “Relentless” and shares how this exploration of Black history is American history.

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Inspired by her love for the Harlem Renaissance and the Victorian era, playwright Tyla Abercrumbie felt compelled to write a story focused on that time period, but from a perspective not frequently seen. 

“I realized that nobody talked about the Black Victorians,” Abercrumbie said. 

“Nobody still talks about them. Maybe one or two, Madame CJ Walker, W.E.B. Du Bois, but there were countless beautiful Black folk making a difference in the world, and it’s a lost era,” Abercrumbie said. “It’s important that we remember who we were to know who we can become.” 

Set in 1919, the story explores an uncovering of family secrets, history and identity when two sisters, Annelle and Janet, are forced to return home to Philadelphia to settle their mother’s estate after her death. While fictional, the story highlights some historical events. 

“What they’re examining in 1919 is the unrest of the Red Summer, which took place here in Chicago,  that was caused by a young Black boy drifting into the wrong side of the lake,” Abercrumbie said. 

“When I wrote the play, I was trying to examine, what are we still seeing that we thought we had conquered?"

Director Ron OJ Parson says while fictional, “Relentless” is a reflection of the role people of color played during this time, noting their stories have often been left out of history. 

“White and Black, Asian, everybody. We were a viable force in this country in the early stages and a lot of these things that we were doing are still part of our society today because of us,” Parson said.  

Roberta Brown of Hazel Crest agrees, noting both the positive and negative parallels between then and now. 

“The whole idea of Blacks in the Victorian age is not something we think about," Brown said. “We're not free. We're still struggling. The things she was talking about. The one daughter. That’s talking about the fear she has. That fact that they're living in tumultuous times. That’s 1919 and here we are in 2022, and the issues are still the same.” 

As the story explores challenges this country might not have overcome, Abercrumbie says her message has not only been well received, but understood. 

“A Japanese American man came up to me after a performance, and said he could relate to the journals and the mother because his parents were in internment camps and while he was not, he understood their fear in the way they raised him,” Abercrumbie said. 

“I want to inspire people to movement. I want them to walk away knowing something more about what we as a culture have contributed to,” Abercrumbie said. “There’s no Black history, it’s American history. I want people to understand I’m giving you a part of your history, not just mine.”

“Relentless” runs at the Goodman Theatre through May 8.

Follow Angel Idowu on Twitter: @angelidowu3

Angel Idowu is the JCS Fund of the DuPage Foundation Arts Correspondent.

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