Erika Dickerson-Despenza, an up-and-coming playwright with impressive credits, makes her West Coast debut with a brilliant new play about the devestating impact on Black girls of events such as the botched response to Hurrican Katrina and the violence of inner city life. Directed by Margo Hall for the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and presented in collaboration with SF Playhouse, “[hieroglyph]” packs one heck of an emotional wallop.
Director Margo Hall, herself a distinguished actress, is clearly an “actor’s director”—she has led her ensemble to polish their delivery of this excellent work to a degree of emotional depth and integrity rarely seen onstage.
Ernest Hayes and his 13-year-old daughter Davis are refugees from Hurricane Katrina. They have left Davis’s mother alone in a FEMA trailer in New Orleans and moved to Chicago hoping to make a new start. Ernest has found a job as a janitor at an art museum, and Davis is struggling to fit in at her new middle school where she has shown a precocious talent for art and become friends with Chicago native Leah, who plays the sophisticated midestern city girl to Davis’s naive country child from the South.
The play opens with a crisis: Davis work in art class has struck her teacher, Ms. T, as somewhat upsetting. Davis has been painting violently disturbing images set among the refugees housed in the Louisiana Superdome after Hurricane Katrina, and marking the paintings with mysterious hieroglyphs. Concerned that Davis may be having an emotional crisis which she has kept hidden, Ms. T has called Ernest to school for a parent conference. Ernest is unsympathetic and resists exploring the situation any further.
The play unfolds as a mystery story, in which clues are gradually uncovered to get us to the complex roots of Davis’s distress. In the process, playwright Dickerson-Despenza does an amazing job of exploring not just the immediate facts of the fictional situation, but the impact of generations of trauma upon the emotions and the bodies of Black girls in America whether under the extreme refugee conditions of the Superdome, the day to day inner city life of a Chicago teenager, or the professional life of a Black schoolteacher.
The playwright’s success at exploring the personal impact of historical conditions, and the politics that create them, while telling a story that is emotionally gripping and specific, is amazing. So much so that the quality of this play at times reminded me of another great American drama that tied a personal tragedy to a larger societal crisis: Arthur Miller’s classic, “Death of a Salesman.” Yes, Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s writing is really that good.
Admittedly, “[hieroglyph]” is not as polished or as perfectly constructed as Miller’s masterpiece, but in terms of intellectual heft, historical significance, emotional authenticity, and its ability to move an audience it is right up there.
Importantly, though, “[hieroglyph]” is a sad and disturbing story, but it is not a tragedy. By the time the story has unfolded, it offers meaningful hope for all the characters, rooted in a deep grasp of historical narrative, and a commitment to the values of family and community as a way forward through the darkness.
This play is full of fine writing and potent images. Trying to describe her feelings at losing her home, Davis makes the insightful and heartbreaking remark, “I don’t got no world any more. Just memories.” Another startlingly effective moment is the image created when her father picks her up in his arms and plays at “airplane”. He is bringing her in for a landing in their new home, and the 13-year-old loses her sadness and giggles like a child. She asks him how he felt that day. He responds with an amazing monologue, including the memorable line: “I sat on the plane trying not to look out the window. I didn’t want to see the sky laughing in my face.”
The play is packed with that kind of emotionally charged dialogue. The characters’ many monologues are beautifully constructed and beautifully delivered. The story is riveting from stark to finish.
All of the actors deliver award worthy performances.
Erika Dickerson-Despenza has indicated that “[hieroglyph]” is intended to be the first of a projected cycle of 10 plays inspired by the events surrounding Hurrican Katrina. We are fortunate to experience the beginning of what is likely to be a major work of art unfolding in successive plays over the next few years. Ultimately, the work may stand with that of August Wilson as a major event in American theatre. Standby and expect something wonderful.
“[hieroglyph]” is available for streaming through April 3. For further information, click here.
Rating: ***** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
‘[hieroglyph]’, a world premiere by Erika Dickerson-Despenza. Directed by Margot Hall. Choreographer: Latanya d. Tigner. Composer: Everett Elton Bradman. Scenic Designer: BIll English. Costume Designer: Regina Y. Evans. Lighting Designer: Kevin Myrick. Sound Designer: Everett Elton Bradman. Projections Designer: Terry Hulsker. Properties Designer: Bethany Wu. Assistant Director: Yvette Couvson. Intimacy Choreographer: Maya Herbsman. Dialect Coach: Omozé Idehenre. Live -Production Video Editor: Bill English. Post Production Video Editor: Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky. Stage Manager: Dani Bae. Production Assistants: Elena Maddy and Elizabeth Newton.
davis despenza hayes: Jamella Cross. ernest hayes: Khary L Moye. ms. T: Safiya Fredericks. leah: Anna Marie Sharpe.