Born and raised in the Austin community, the characters in Tyla Abercrumbie’s debut play “Relentless” were inspired by the people Tyla knew in her community.
Describing her childhood as the days before the internet and social media, Abercrumbie said that while Austin lacked resources and residents struggled, they still survived and had joy.
Those qualities live on in Abercrumbie’s characters in “Relentless,” a tale about survival, aspirations, and the realization that people are multifaceted and multidimensional beings.
Told through the lens of two sisters living in the days following the passing of their beloved mother, “Relentless” is set in 1919, but many of its themes resonate with modern audiences.
Tyla was very intentional in making sure that no matter who sees “Relentless” or when, audiences can take away some clear messages. It was important to her that the characters be seen in all of their layers. Abercrumbie said too often Black people in Austin and around the world are caricatured.
“‘Relentless’ is about people existing and wanting what every human wants – a good life, respect and joy. These characters are looking for society to treat them the way it treats everyone else,” Abercrumbie said.
Growing up, Abercrumbie’s love of the arts was nurtured outside of her home, such as attending an Alvin Ailey Dance Company performance with her school. Ailey’s “Wade in the Water” is still a major inspiration for Abercrumbie.
The actress and playwright said her older sister encouraged her to freely express herself through the arts by writing poetry and participating in school programs. Abercrumbie’s passion for the arts fueled her journey through Chicago’s local theater circuit before she began working theater and TV gigs around the country.
Eventually, Abercrumbie joined the TimeLine’s Playwrights Collective, where ‘Relentless’ was developed and brought into fruition with the help of other Black creatives, such as Ron OJ Parson, the play’s director.
“Too often Black and Brown people are looked at as though we want a favor or there’s this thought outside of the culture that Black people think they’re owed something,” Abercrumbie said.
“Yes, Austin was struggling, but at the same time there were (and still are) plenty of educated people, business owners, and just overall good people in the community,” she said. “People not from the West Side look at it as this helpless hole with helpless people and that’s not true at all. That’s not the Austin I saw.”
The West Side native credited Austin for providing her with the landscape in which to imagine characters that span beyond the limitations many people place on Black life.
“One of my favorite characters in literature is Jessie B. Semple by Langston Hughes,” she said. “I love him so much, because he shows that a simple life does not mean one has simple thoughts.”
In “Relentless,” Abercrumbie also pays homage to another idol of hers – Chicago native Lorraine Hansberry. As a nod to Hansberry, whose famous play, “A Raisin In the Sun,” takes place in a Chicago apartment, the entirety of “Relentless” takes place in just one room.
“I feel that you can intimately get to know the characters in this one room in the home,” Abercrumbie said. “The home is a space where people share their innermost thoughts aloud, so this one room can still hold so much narrative.”
“Relentless” completed its run at the Goodman Theatre last week.