RELENTLESS Interview with Playwright Tyla Abercrumbie & Director Ron OJ Parson

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For the last seven years, Let’s Play’s goal has always been about helping people see the hidden gems of Chicagoland theaters. Also, to reach an untapped audience of minorities overlooked and, in most cases, not even acknowledged. We continue this pursuit by interviewing the very best in theater to educate this untapped audience of the great value they provided.

In this interview, we speak with two of Chicago’s major players in theater, Tyla Abercrumbie and Ron OJ Parson.  

Tyla is the playwright of this thought-provoking play that will educate audiences about Black Americans’ historical plight and how we thrived when provided equal access to the American dream. Centered around the Black Victorian Era, we learned about two sisters returning home after the death of their mother. They discover a series of diaries left by her and learn about buried secrets from her past. Tyla is also an accomplished actor in Chicago and featured in the TV series, The Chi and The Big Leap.   

Ron, the director of RELENTLESS, is one of the most sought-after directors in Chicago. However, his talent as a renowned director has carried him across many cities (Virginia, Portland, Louisville, Pittsburg, New York, etc.) and even across the border to Canada. A historical genuine regarding the history of theater and the impact Black Americans have played, Ron is known for his powerful ability to bring plays to life and his love for August Wilson’s plays.  

Let’s Play is proud to discuss RELENTLESS with Playwright Tyla and Ron OJ Parson.    

Tyla Abercrumbie

Tyla, you have written several plays (The Straw, Asylum (aka) Life and Naked & Raw). So, tell us what inspired Relentless?  

RELENTLESS was inspired by the passion I have for the Black Victorian period. I wanted to know all about the Black Victorians and that era, and after finding out what I learned, I wanted more, so I decided to write about them. The Harlem Renaissance remains my favorite period in literature. In reading about the great Black/African Americans of that period, I was drawn toward the writers, creatives, inventors, politicians, activists, and extraordinary black folk that often go unmentioned and forgotten in American history.  

Where do you rank Relentless in your catalog of plays?   

RELENTLESS, in my heart, is a beautiful classic work that offers memorable roles to actors now and for future generations of actors. Of course, because the period is one of my favorites, RELENTLESS is currently my favorite baby…but then… I love them all.  

The play introduces us to two sisters who come home to settle their mother’s estate, only to discover secrets of her past. What is the essence of titling this play Relentless?   

When you ask yourself if our ancestors thought a hundred years from 1919, we would still be in a fistfight for equal rights; well, its battles like these embody the essence of titling it RELENTLESS. With all the work and suffering they endured, it is obvious what the title represents. As relentless as the struggle remains, we must be equally relentless in fighting for change. There have been countless stories, plays, novels, poems, and songs detailing the pain, fight, and revolution we had to overcome, and these two sisters are telling a small and vital story about those struggles.  

You mention Relentless brings together the Black Victorian era, which historically has been the attempt to correct the records regarding Black Americans’ positive image and contributions and a relationship to Black Life Matters. How do you bring these two identities into the play?   

I don’t see two identities. I see a continuous journal and a constant standing united on shoulders. There is nothing new about the BLACK LIVES MATTER MOVEMENT that isn’t a reflection of the movements of the Black Victorian. Although they may look different and from different eras, we fight the same fight. The struggles are the same.  

In your Timeline Theatre video, you cited an unrest. What does the “Unrest” mean in this play, and how does it relate to today’s political and social unrest?   

The “Unrest” in RELENTLESS mirrors the same unrest we are experiencing today. But, unfortunately, the shoulders of this unrest have lured us into a comfort zone where the illusion of change has convinced the world, especially Black Americans, to believe that we have mixed and mingled so well that our injustices aren’t different. Somehow convincing ourselves that maybe systemic racism has softened and that words and phrases like INCLUSION, DIVERSITY, AND ANTI RACISM mean change is taking place. But, let’s not forget that George Floyd died in the streets with Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck. Ahmad Aubrey was hunted down and shot dead while other Black Americans experienced harassment while sleeping, eating, walking in the park, or listening to music. So, in essence, the unrest lets us know that nothing has changed.  

We have lived through this unrest throughout the centuries, from the fights in the 1900s that included Atlanta, Chicago, Rosewood, and the infamous, Black Wall Street in Tusla. This unrest is no different than the slave rebellions. The Unrest in RELENTLESS discusses injustice and our complacency. The fight is the same, and every person must remain RELENTLESS. 

In Relentless, the sisters learned things about their mother that were life-changing. What secrets can you share with our readers about these discoveries?   

Unfortunately, none but I welcome you to join this fantastic cast for a performance, and you will be riveted with what you learn. I promise.  

How does Relentless educate the audience about the Black Suffrage Movement?   

RELENTLESS educates you by reminding you that the Black Suffrage Movement existed. Black women played an active role in the movement, participating in political meetings, creating organizations, attending conventions at local churches devising strategies to gain the right to vote. Black women have always been at the forefront of change. While being pushed into the shadows of democracy, invoking Maya Angelou’s; Still, I Rise; much like the Women’s Movement and the Me Too Movement of today. 

The underlying message seems to be understanding the positive impacts of Blacks in America against relentless obstacles. Are you concerned that Relentless will negatively affect our already polarized society or open people’s minds regarding the need for the liberation of equality?   

No, I don’t believe the audience will see RELENTLESS as polarizing. Art is never polarizing. Art is designed to open the audience’s minds to see and experience the soul of the art presented on stage.   

What is the message you hope people receive after seeing Relentless?   

I hope each person will walk away moved to do something that positively impacts someone else. The message is to keep asking soul-searching questions, continuously learning acceptance, being willing to embrace change, and leaning into your fears while embracing them, but don’t forget to have a good time. Life is invaluable and very short.  

Ron OJ Parson

 

You have directed some well-known playwrights that have written plays that opened the audience’s consciousness. After reading the script, what moved you about Relentless? 

Relentless takes place in 1919, a tumultuous time in history. Oddly enough, a pandemic was going on; race riots rocked the country, lynching was commonplace, with Chicago being the flashpoint of one of the worst race riots in our history. Yet, during this chaos, black people strive and live a good life, and Relentless gives us a glimpse of that side of Black Americans you rarely see portrayed in theatre or film. That unique storyline made me want to see this story told. I love to educate and entertain with the plays I direct while helping to inspire people to seek the truth. 

Relentless has a powerful message of how Black people shaped the History of America. What direction did you envision was needed to bring out this message? 

This play has it all, so just telling the truth is the approach I wanted to take with this story. These characters bring to life a story of Black Americans as a people who provided and continue to provide a big part of the history of America that we all need to learn about and witness. Being a premiere, I hope it opens up doors in people’s minds to find out more about us during this time. 

Black Americans have been characterized negatively throughout society. What do you want audiences to learn from Relentless that will make them seek to educate themselves regarding the inequality and justice Blacks continuously endure? 

Let me lead with my last comment. I want the audiences to learn about us, Black Americans, being an essential part of making America. Educate them on the pain and suffering we endured and what racism, inequality, injustice, and a system built for us to fail, can do to us, but we survive. We have to, and we will continue to! We are a “Relentless” people. 

You and Tyla have a history of working together. What about that history made this collaboration special? 

I tried to get Tyla to send her plays out for years because they were stacking up. Good writing I knew could breathe, and finally, she put one together that I knew after reading it was special, and I was right. Its unique style, the richness of character, beautiful images, and room for designers to explore made it a canvas I wanted to see come to fruition. 

How do you feel that theater helped the black playwrights enlighten others above the plight that blacks endured historically and today? And do you believe the struggles to educate others about the black experience are still as problematic today as in the time of this play? 

Yes, it is still an issue in today’s society, but theatre has been a pilot for black playwrights, directors, and actors to “enlighten” the world to the black experience. It has been a pathway to express who we are and how we have persevered in this country. It is just one of many outlets we use to express ourselves, not only theater, but art, music, and literature. 

Let’s Play thanks to Tyla and Ron for taking the time to answer our questions and share about Tyla’s premiere play, Relentless.  

RELENTLESS – January 21 – February 26, 2021, at Theater Wit, 

1229 W. Belmont Ave, Chicago, IL 60657. For tickets, go to: 

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