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Operating as usual

Check out this interview with incredible playwright Tyla Abercrumbie!

Check out this interview with incredible playwright Tyla Abercrumbie!


➡️ You were on the verge of opening your highly anticipated play, RELENTLESS, at TimeLine when the shutdown began. Were you already in rehearsals?

We had barely started. The marketing was just about to be rolled out. We’d agreed on what the poster was going to look like and a photoshoot was on the calendar. Everybody was just gearing up because it was to start rehearsals March 30th. It was cast. Several actors were finishing shows.

I had just closed SWEAT in Boston on March 1st. We were able to get to the end of our production, but I do recall during rehearsal in late January one of our cast members getting extremely sick. And looking back at it now, at the symptoms of COVID, I personally believe that’s what he battled with. I say that because it came on suddenly. He had flu-like symptoms, throwing up, chills, etc. And we normally equate these things to something we must have done. He kept saying he “ate some bad takeout.” One day for rehearsal, he came in drenched in sweat. And I remember saying, “Hey, dude, you need to get out of this rehearsal room.” I think that as actors we have been taught, and we believe, that we have to come through for each other, and, for the most part, we do. But sometimes you have to think about your own wellbeing.

I did have to mourn RELENTLESS. And I would say to my friends, I feel so selfish, people out here dying, and I’m literally hurt about not being able to do RELENTLESS. But we have to give ourselves permission, so go ahead and give yourself permission to be sad about what we’re going through, and be sad about what you’re going through individually, because I refuse to guilt myself over the fact that I have individual things that disappoint me as well as recognizing the worldly things that disappoint and upset me. They are still plans to produce RELENTLESS [when theater becomes possible].

➡️ RELENTLESS is set in 1919. What drew you to that period?

I’ve always been inspired by this period. And the research was wonderful for me because I’ve always been a very proud American Black anyway, but, when you research a period of time that is under-discussed, and the heroes and the revolutionaries and the movers-and-shakers of the time are unexamined, or even thought of, or held in esteem, maybe we know of a few people, but there are many more…I was very captivated by it.

But one of the most important motivators and this is very true. As a young girl dreaming of becoming an actor I always wanted to be in a period piece where I wore the elaborate costumes of the Victorian era. While being draped for a play at Asolo Theatre in Florida, I admired the renderings of Virgil Johnson (award winning designer) and I said, “Oh…those are so beautiful! I always dreamed of wearing costumes like that when I was an actor.” And the draper, a white woman maybe 30-35 said, “But you weren’t around back then. Oh wait. I remember in Deadwood (the series) there was the Black doctor and his wife…so I guess you were). I was flabbergasted. I said to myself then: I’m going to write plays about this period because that’s unacceptable.

The Harlem Renaissance has always been my favorite period in American Literature ever since I was a little girl. And, to understand those stories of Zora Neal Hurston, and poet like Claude McKay, and countless others, I found myself always reading backward from the HR and discovering all of these amazing Black people: artists and poets and activists, doctors, lawyers and scientists of the late 1800’s. Black people are generally recognized for three periods Slavery, Civil Rights and Obama.

I chose 1919 because it was a pivotal time. You had the war ending, the suffrage movement, prohibition, Influenza which was known as the (Spanish Flu). You had this dynamic of change happening. Black men had come back from the war and were looking to be respected. And white men were afraid that these veterans weren’t going to be willing to step back into their subordinate roles. Black women had become powerful forces in the working class because they men had been off at war. And Black folks had a degree of power. They had their education and they were supporting each other. You also had the Red Summer in Chicago, and the Elaine Massacre in Arkansas, when 200 people were hanged. The revolutionary time of this period [including these] uprisings were interesting to me.

Also I didn’t want to write about someone we know historically. I wanted to write about the people who would be like you or me in that period. And how the backdrop of life informs who you are. How you relate to each other.

Without knowing we’d be in this situation today, RELENTLESS deals a lot with how people are feeling now. Today. As a Black person you grow up being told “be peaceful”, “love always wins”, “kill ‘em with kindness,” “don’t fight back.” You hear all of these things for a lifetime, and yet you simultaneously see the injustices and people trying to make you believe it isn’t real, or it’s a figment of your imagination, or the victim is demonized. Then something happens and that death becomes a face of a movement. You, and people like you, are at a point where the response is, “No. There is no turning back. There is no stopping.” We’ve done all the right things, been the “Good Negro” and still a man, Black, can be killed in the streets in front of a world wide audience. That was happening in 1919. It’s been happening since. It’s still happening now. Back then there were even less repercussions. Officers and citizens could kill with immunity. Just like now.

RELENTLESS looks at how the Influenza Pandemic of 1918/19 (Spanish Flu) had people dying in the streets. That literally happened. Because they didn’t have a place to go. Look up the Influenza Pandemic. You will not see images of Black suffering, but of whites dying in the streets. Black were probably dying in the gutter cause hospitals didn’t rush to treat them. And that’s what I mean about the period being so rich; it is literally a mirror. It’s chilling. It’s sad.

➡️ How does your background as an actor and director inform your playwriting?

Being an actor first is very instrumental in my writing. As real people we are never one-dimensional. There is so much motivating what we are doing minute-to-minute and there is so much we are not revealing when we are speaking. I want to create characters that have multiple layers and texture, you know that you’re on stage saying something of value. That’s how being an actor informs me.

I’m an American Black woman actor. I have, many times, had to play a role written for Black females but underdeveloped, or they were written for white characters, and given my black skin, [yet] none of my sensibilities. I know what it feels like to think, “Man, this character needs more texture.” As a writer I always promised myself I would never do that to an actor. I want everyone to feel that this is their play. You learn the importance of why you’re here, not just to move the story along or to prop up the lead.

And, as a director, being an actor is informative because I know the process. When I talk to actors I know where they are in the process. I know how to leave them alone and let them have their process. I appreciate that you must give the actor the freedom to dissect, know and defend their character.

➡️ How long have you been writing plays?

I have been writing plays at least ten years and I have a total right now of seven plays and countless one acts. And I have to say, in truth: I’m not insecure as an actor. I feel very knowledgeable. I do my homework and I’m never insecure when I get the job. Overall, I feel very confident as an artist. I’m a poet, and for years I would go and do poetry. So I’m confident in my writing. I used to think my acting career will blow up and then I could focus on my writing So I always put my writing on the back burner.

And then about five years ago I said, “No more waiting and no more hesitating. I’m not seeing enough of the stories I want told.” So I just started putting all the energy and thought and work into it. And, like the universe is when you are focused, doors open you don’t even know are there. They just open up. And you’re like, “I just need to be obedient to my talent and that will happen.”

➡️ What are you working on now?

What I’m working on right now is part two to RELENTLESS. I had started working on this before COVID so I had no idea that this uprising would be taking place one hundred years later. The characters are descendants of the characters in RELENTLESS. And they’re living in Winter 2020. Considering the state of race relations post Obama, BLM, MeToo, TimesUp and pre-COVID, I had a lot to work with. Now… I have a sh*tload of material that I didn’t expect looking forward to 2020.

I was just looking at my 2019 calendar. I was writing looking forward to in the new year, and it was interesting to see the absolute unawareness of the future on this level, which none of us had. We don’t plan for anything of this magnitude, COVID, or this uprising. Even with the H1N1 pandemic during the Obama administration, and he said, “We needed to prepare—another pandemic would come.” And with the previous killings of unarmed Black men by police…we should’ve known this thing would come. But it’s not our way, especially not the American way, to hear those things and plan for them. When Katrina happened there was early notification. Scientists had predicted a devastating hurricane in the early 2000’s and we never paid enough attention to plan for it.

“RELENTLESS 2”, we’ll call it that for now, examines the descendants and how they’re dealing with PTSD. Let me say, I think that every Black person in this country, whether they are conservative, Republican, Democrat, whatever, we all have a form of PTSD. We may not want to claim it. Perfect example: I watched an interview with a Black conservative and he basically said, “If you get pulled over you should just put your hand at ten and two and do what you’re told. My father taught me that.” And all I could think about is: he doesn’t even realize he is dealing with PTSD.

You wouldn’t [automatically] put your hand at ten and two if you got pulled over because your plates were expired. Ten and two is about how you drive not when you stop. Point is… whatever your reservation might be, as a Black woman, mine is three times that. I’ve never had a problem with a police officer while driving. So why then do I have fear? Because I know and have seen what can happen, and does happen, without provocation.We have a system of teaching our children how to behave to safeguard their lives, consequently you are always processing something that is about you being Black.

My characters in this play have become successful. They are descendants of successful people. And it’s 100 years later. Why are they still battling ideas of: why do I feel this way? I have no reason to feel this way except that it’s been taught to me. Against the backdrop of having someone like Trump in office, blatant police brutality, MeToo, BLM, TimesUp and now George Floyd unrest…so much.

Another [of my plays], ONLY WOMEN BLEED, is about the cyclical effect of domestic violence. And this is really important to me because anything that affects women, I am absorbed in. I want the conversation to always be centered around how women empower each other constantly. And not just [women who are] related, but women who come in and empower you when you’re at your most vulnerable.

Finally, the most recent material I put to paper is a solo show about this #MeToo and feminist movement, which has set weirdly with me. When I was working in corporate America, before I started working full time as an actor, I remember the white women I worked for having as much resistance against me as white male employers. While you were trying to get through the glass ceiling, you didn’t want me trying to get through that glass ceiling first. So rights for themselves hasn’t necessarily meant rights for me.

And then you have something like Amy Cooper. Knowing her ability to be able to pull that card and use that against his blackness, and yet if I said that was in existence people would say, “No, you and I are alike” and, “I don’t see color.” And so I was feeling very, ugh.

Researching the suffrage movement: Black women were often asked to come and speak. It was Black women who did these extraordinary things, and yet they were pushed to the back of it. You have an Ida B. Wells, but I’m saying the suffrage movement was full of women of color who were instrumental and yet they were pushed to the back. That type of behavior is notorious. You want my voice but you don’t want my face, and you damn sure don’t want my face to be seen before yours. And I have a problem with that and I need to express it. That is not to denounce my white sisters, because I have a lot of sisters, we are elbow clenching and fighting with a cause.

This moment right now is a rainbow of people around the world, so in no way do I mean to suggest we haven’t come forward. I just want to be able to say what I feel and I haven’t gotten the words in order just yet. I know part of it is: You keep saying you’re with me but you try to push me to back of the line. You do the same thing to me that you are crying about. You turn and look at me and go, “I am mistreated. You are mistreated. We are mistreated” and then you turn around and mistreat me but say to the world, “I’m doing this for women.” Like Sojourner Truth said, “T’aint I a woman?”

➡️ You have a national career. What has kept you in Chicago?

I was out in LA for about five years. You had a handful of Black women working and a lot of reality TV. I found myself feeling very lonely and desperate there. I was working in a very high end clothing store on Sunset. I did book a gigs here and there but they were few and far between. I had a high profile manager but I was still working in a clothing store and living with a roommate. I’d be getting offers to come and do a play, but turn it down. All the while working in retail. I remember having to sit back and think about my career. I was like, I’m literally out here doing retail.

The year I returned to Chicago for what was supposed to be a visit. My sister, who is blind, she wasn’t born blind, she went blind from a genetic disease, was going through a major change in her job. I remember going with her to ICREE, the Center for the Visually Impaired in Chicago. I was waiting for her to go through her appointments and one of the classes she had to take was about learning how to walk with a cane. She and several other newly blind people and newly visually impaired were brought into the lobby to practice with their cane. It’s huge thing for somebody to lose their vision and I realized, being there and being taken aback by these people and my sister, I remember thinking I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

She’s never needed anything. She took it all in stride. I mean she has had to adjust and I’m sure has her bad days, but she seems to take it all in stride. I admired that. That’s when I asked myself: Do you want to be in LA, doing retail and waiting around? Or do you want to work? And I want to work. I want to work. It took a minute but…

The universe is waiting for you to commit. After about a year or so, I signed a lease and I set a bar for myself. I said, I’ve gotta make this much money on every gig. The base amount was my monthly rent. I am not a hobbyist. I’m an artist. I will make my living as an artist.

Chicago then became good for me. Even if I have to go out of state, Chicago is my base. I booked out of Chicago. I have to admit, even as a Chicago based actor, I have done more work out of the city. I’m part of that group that came through the Chicago trenches when nobody employed more than one or two black actors. We had to all audition for the few crumbs. Some people waited around to the next season. I would go do regional theater. When I left Chicago and came back I was always looking out of the Chicago market. Now the market is thriving and I’ve been hot so I’m gonna enjoy it because I don’t want to have a roommate and I don’t want to sell clothes. I don’t want to be doing something else. The only thing I want to do is create. Act, write, direct, being a part of the community that gives me air in my lungs. That’s why I’m in Chicago.


Tyla Abercrumbie (Playwright) Relentless, received its first public reading as part of TimeLine’s inaugural First Draft Playwrights Collective Festival in December 2018. Abercrumbie’s other plays include Who’s Afraid of Deepak Chopra, Asylum (aka Life), Psychological Terrorism, Naked and Raw, The Straw, Affair of Ambiguity, and Normality. Abercrumbie’s work has been produced by Pittsburgh Playwright’s Theatre, MPAACT Theatre, Chicago Cultural Center, and The Straw received a professional Staged Reading with Chicago Dramatists. In addition to her writing, Abercrumbie is a veteran actor, whose recent credits include Sweat ( Huntington Theatre). Other regional credits include (SWEAT) Goodman Theatre PIPELINE (Victory Gardens), Chicago Shakespeare, Court, Next, Northlight, Asolo Repertory Theatre, Pittsburgh Public Theatre, Milwaukee Rep and Actors Theatre of Louisville. Television credits include The Chi (recurring guest star), Utopia, Proven Innocent, Chicago PD, Chicago Med, Shrink, Empire, Easy, Crisis, Mob Doctor, Detroit 187, Chicago Code, Shameless, and Private Practice. You may also have seen her at comedy clubs around town testing jokes for her stand-up show, Naked & Raw 3 (The Takers and the Tooken). Also established poet invited to showcase her work around the country, and as an opener for keynote speakers like the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Cathy Hughes. She has a BA degree with a focus in Theatre and Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago, Company member with Timeline Theatre and is a member of AEA and SAG-AFTRA.

✔️ Celebrating our Chicago Theatre Community... and knowing greater work will continue when we all emerge from the pandemic. Please find any way to support our fellow artists and theatres during this pause. @ChicagoTheater


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