Recent powerful productions including the film Promising Young Woman, the limited series Unbelievable, and the play What the Constitution Means to Me have strived to open conversations about our country’s seeming inability to effectively address violence against women. All too often the aftermath of these crimes is focused on how to change the behavior of women (who should perhaps dress and act differently!) rather than the male perpetrators. [hieroglyph] — a co-production of San Francisco Playhouse and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre currently streaming from the SF Playhouse website — explores our near-dismissal of rape culture specifically as it manifests in the Black community. Inspired by true events that took place in the projects near her Chicago home as well as headlines made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza has crafted a work centered on 13 year old Davis. Along with her father, the girl was evacuated by FEMA from New Orleans to Chicago while her mother has stayed behind.
Her old life ripped away from her, Davis is struggling with her studies and seems unusually anxious. Concerned that she’s endangering her chances of securing a good college education, her father Ernest enlists the help of her favorite teacher Miss T. Art is the only subject in which Davis is excelling and he hopes Miss T can encourage the talented teen to put that energy into academics. Instead, Miss T shares her concerns that through her art, Davis is attempting to communicate a trauma for which she literally has no words. (The play’s title is enclosed in square brackets, used to indicate that an outside voice is imparting information left unclear by the speaker. ) The pictures of women and street scenes of her old home are peppered with symbols. When their secret is revealed, it is simple and yet devastating.
The Equity production was fully staged at the San Francisco Playhouse and filmed using three cameras with Zoom in mind and under the guidance of two COVID compliance officers. Assuredly directed by Hansberry Artistic Director Margo Hall with choreography by Latanya D. Tigner, the drama is paced with rising urgency. Hall’s steering of the quick changes of mood is cleverly color coded by costume designer Regina Y. Evans, who wraps Miss T in a radiant palate while signaling Leah’s comfort with her own body with soothing tones and relaxed fit. Dickerson-Despenza’s dramatic device of muttering in one’s sleep as a way of filling in backstory isn’t nearly as impactful as the use of projections (created by Teddy Hulsker) to share Davis’s impassioned pictures. Headphones are highly recommended in order to better feel the anguish evident in Everett Elton Bradman’s searing soundscape.
Jamella Cross provides the vulnerable Davis Hayes with the shaky defenses of a typical teen. In a moment of particular tenderness, she clutches a teddy bear while trying to hide the alcohol on her breath from her concerned father. Her delicacy is nicely balanced by the bubbly confident energy of Anna Marie Sharpe’s buoyant Leah. The pivotal role of Miss T is beautifully rendered by Safiya Fredericks, who has to navigate the tightest emotional turns of the four. While Khary L. Moye as Ernest Hayes is left holding the space for men who must confront the fallout from their own toxic masculinity. The skillful performances bring authenticity and connection to a script that occasionally overruns its banks. There are four vivid descriptions of rape, similar only in their level of disturbance. The tidal wave of horrors risks drowning the audience in pain and potentially depresses their ability to fully respond. (The playbill provides contact information for appropriate agencies for those who need to talk.)
It is heartening to see two fabulous production companies collaborating to provide a homebound audience with thought-provoking content. And despite its relentless gut punches, [hieroglyph] fulfills the mission of continuing to build community one play at a time. It runs 98 minutes without an intermission and is streaming On Demand at https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/2020-2021-season/hieroglyph/ through April 3. Tickets ($15 – $100) can be purchased from Lorraine Hansberry Theatre at lhtsf.org or from San Francisco Playhouse at sfplayhouse.org.