Relentless was the first hot ticket of 2022 for Chicago theaters. The Timeline production sold out in its January-February run and even offered streaming options in its later weeks. The show has since transferred to the Goodman Theater, where it is playing next to Good Night, Oscar—a production combo of this quality arrives maybe two or three times in a decade. Tyla Abercrumbie’s script is particularly praiseworthy for developing intricate connections between its six main characters with the predominant action taking place in 1919 at the dawn of “Red Summer,” a period marked by nationwide racial violence against African Americans.
While examining the character interactions, a good place to start is two dramatically different relationships that are both defined by at least one character as “sisterhood.” The play opens with Janet (Jaye Ladymore) and Annelle (Ayanna Bria Bakari) in the setting of their childhood home in Philadelphia. Janet, in her mid-20’s, is a nurse with a fierce independent streak. Annelle, a few years younger, is married and living more as a socialite. Janet and Annelle fit the archetype of siblings with vastly different personalities who are nonetheless completely interconnected. A relevant detail is they have never lived more than a few doors apart. A focal point of the first scene involves Annelle trying to matchmake between Janet and a wealthy friend—Janet’s refusal to attend the dinner despite significant build-up is the first of many surprises.
In a structural decision with a tremendous payoff, Abercrumbie waits until the beginning of the second act to reveal the second “sister” relationship. Janet and Annelle’s recently deceased mother was born a slave on a Maryland plantation in 1848. I hesitate to use the word sisters to describe Zhuukee (Demetra Dee) and Mary Anna Elizabeth (Rebecca Hurd), the girl who would become her mistress, but that is the exact word Mary Anna Elizabeth uses often to describe herself and “Annabelle Lee,” the name she gave to the slave baby at birth. Through a series of four flashbacks spanning the time period of 1858 to 1875, we see the degree to which these characters have grown up together as companions. The depth of the two characters is enhanced by costume designs from Emily N. Brink, whose dresses at different stages of their lives are a reflection of both their changing ages and the dynamic of their evolving relationship. Without giving too much away, I will note that the moment when Zhuukee reveals her real name (the name her mother gave to her) to Mary Anna Elizabeth is very powerful, and the last flashback explains a looming question for the play regarding the circumstances behind Janet and Annelle’s relative affluence within the African-American community.
Another theme in Relentless involves how characters survive emotionally despite the racial violence erupting around them. Part of Janet’s reluctance to marry involves a desire to remain unattached should she be draw into the resistance movement. Annelle questions whether she can bring a child into the world, and she questions her husband Marcus’s (Travis Delgado) desire to do so despite the violence he experienced both as a child and as a doctor. Franklin (Xavier Edward King), the man Annelle hopes to set up with Janet, is the wealthiest character, but his background is defined by rejection from a white father, the unprosecuted murder of his mother, and a hard-fought battle for an inheritance that was only challenged based on his race. While mild-mannered, Franklin is charged in the play’s final scene, relating the real-life events involving a teen murdered in Lake Michigan, which sparked the Chicago race riots of 1919. The question of what each character wants from life is central to this scene, released as part of the Goodman’s promotional campaign.
Relentless has a runtime of over three hours, and yet one leaves in awe of the tightly-written script enhanced by the multi-tiered performances by each actor in this ensemble cast. Chicago audiences have rightfully embraced Relentless to a degree rarely seen by productions starting in our acclaimed mid-sized theaters companies like Timeline. The current production at the Goodman has been extended to May 8.