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How the Harlem Renaissance Inspired Relentless

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Relentless is on stage now through May 8! 

Tyla Abercrumbie's "Relentless"

By Khalid Y. Young

During rehearsals for Relentless, dramaturg Khalid Y. Long posed a few questions to playwright Tyla Abercrumbie about her inspiration for writing the play, being gobsmacked by the parallels between 1919 and today, and how this story fits into a larger narrative to come.

Khalid Y. Long: What was your inspiration for writing Relentless?

Tyla Abercrumbie: My inspiration for Relentless was a love of the Harlem Renaissance. That might sound odd, but my favorite time in literature was the Harlem Renaissance. As a young girl, I read all the poets and authors and writers of that time, but what became significant was when I read the works of Zora Neal Hurston, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and so many more. I became fascinated with how they came to be. Where did this amazing generation of poets and writers descend from, and how were they inspired?
That led me backward to the Victorian Era, Edwardian Era, and so on. I discovered on my own that my heritage was so much more elaborate, intriguing, extraordinary than just bondage. The system we currently learn under and teach the kids of the future perpetuates lies that suggest Black folk had three—now four—central moments in history: slavery/bondage, civil rights, Obama, and now, George Floyd. We are and have always been so much more than that. Our place in history begins with the beginning of time.

Researching backward from the Harlem Renaissance inspired me profoundly when I saw the affluent, educated, well-traveled, intensely well-versed, Black Victorian.

KL: Although Relentless is set in 1919, the play is quite relevant today.

TA: When I began writing Relentless during my time with TimeLine’s Playwrights Collective in 2016 and completed it in 2018, I had no way of knowing how prescient the work would be. In fact, after we were postponed in 2020, as the news of the pandemic and unrest, women’s movement, Times Up, and Black Lives Matter unfolded, we were constantly gobsmacked by the literal mirror image of the time. I chose 1919 for Relentless because it was such a pivotal year in the escalating change after the end of World War I. So much was on the horizon, including hope, but so much change exploded. 1919 was a time to be reckoned with; the world woke up in 1919 just as the world woke up in 2020.

KL: Are there any playwrights who inspire your style of playwriting?

TA: Wow! Great question. Yes. Lorraine Hansberry first and foremost inspires me. I was introduced to her by my elder sister, and A Raisin in the Sun remains my favorite play to this day.
I, of course, love August Wilson and all he gave me in the last 20 years in my theatre experience.
I also loved novels whose characters lived inside their novels like plays. I read Langston Hughes’ Jesse B. Semple, and every chapter was like the scenes of a play. Other playwrights include P.J. Gibson, Pearl Cleage, and Zora Neale Hurston. But too … I really love the work of Tennessee Williams. And Shakespeare. Damaged people navigating life and circumstance. That’s who I want to watch on stage.

KL: What do you hope audiences take away from a play so steeped
in history?

TA: I hope audiences take away so much intrigue that they go home moved to learn more about the period. I want the conversations over dinner after the show or after the second time seeing these excellent actors perform, that they ask serious questions about what they have perceived to be true in history and why they are enlightened by what they now know. I want audiences to have a good time but a visceral reaction; they won’t let the play leave them for a few days. It’s to be discussed, lived, digested, experienced.

KL: Relentless is part of a larger trilogy. Can you share what audiences can expect in the future?

TA: Well … I researched these characters and created such complete backstories, it felt unfair for that work to be mine and not shared. Thus, it became the inspiration to start a conversation between generations. Just like we’re examining 1919 in the theatre now, many other plays are steeped in history this season. I am intrigued by the conversation continuing. The second play explores the descendants of Relentless. Thus, how do we set our lineage up to succeed or fail? And what does that look like in 2022? The third play is a mystery.

Khalid Y. Long is the Dramaturg for Relentless.