Review: Searing trauma explored in powerful ‘[hieroglyph]’

Young Davis tends to stop in her tracks way too often for a girl of 13. There is mystery and sadness behind her lovely brown eyes, and no matter how long ago a traumatic experience changed her, the memory is always near, lurking within the beautiful art that surrounds her.

In a co-production between the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and San Francisco Playhouse, “[hieroglyph]” is a powerful work, directed magnificently by Hansberry’s artistic director Margo Hall, streaming through Saturday, April 3. The piece, penned mightily by Erika Dickerson-Despenza, is powerful in its balance, exploring a multitude of issues while keeping one in a particular focus.

In 2005, Davis (Jamella Cross) is struggling at a new school in her new city. A consummate top student, she is now only excelling in art class where Ms. T (Safiya Fredericks) is the perfect antidote for her woes. School struggles, which can set off any parent, brings the consternation level to a fever pitch for Davis’ dad Ernest (Khary L. Moye), a man lost as to how he can help his daughter get back on track.

This is not a story where a young girl has some bad grades and needs to shape up and get her act together. Davis is one of the more than one million residents who fled from New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina, those who were seeking refuge all over the country. While at least a fourth of those residents landed in Houston, Davis and Ernest end up in Chicago, where he works as a custodian.

Leah (Anna Marie Sharpe, left) and Davis (Jamella Cross) engage in girl talk and math lessons in “[hieroglyph],” streaming through April 2. (Jessica Palopoli photo)

Davis is quite the outsider. She has a funny accent, does not boast a lot of social circles. Her respite is in her sketch book.

The construction of her shapes on paper feature a different tone, one that is dark and rooted in her own personal trauma, shared with the audience in the most visceral of ways through voices and projections. Her horror came from a night in the Louisiana Superdome, the massive stadium that sheltered up to 30,000 mostly Black residents who were displaced due to Katrina and the breaking of the city’s levee system, which was faulty from the start. The stadium effort became loaded with infrastructure problems, rotting food and a roof which began to blow off. There were also multiple reports of crimes, deaths and sexual abuse.

It is all trauma that Davis deals with and tries to distance herself from, but there are triggers aplenty. What does not help is her friend Leah (Anna Marie Sharpe) feeding her a steady diet of misinformation about wooing boys, conversations that provide some needed levity to a tough topic.

What makes the play such a searing and unapologetic narrative is how all the elements are linked. School is not a haven for Davis, who is reminded of her own trauma as she sits in Ms. T’s class. She finds personal devastation in other pieces of art, namely a haunting piece by Harlem Renaissance era artist Ernest Crichlow entitled “Lovers,” which shows a vicious attack on a Black woman by a Klansman. The invasiveness and violation hits her hard.

Each character yearns madly for what they can’t have, and the way that element richly connects to each personal story is powerful. Ernest is separated from his wife yet begins to fall for Ms. T. And as all good educators do, she cares deeply for Davis and senses early something darker at play through her art. The senses she has are not wrong, connecting to her own trauma. And finally, Leah’s self-assuredness takes a brutal blow, violence devastating another young girl.

Each character is brought to life beautifully, and while Moye shows a restraint in moments that would have been better served by going deeper, his portrayal provides a nuanced viewing of a man not only trapped in his own circumstance, but handcuffed by his own horrific thinking that reeks of ignorance and toxic masculinity.

Ernest (Khary L. Moye) and Ms. T. (Safiya Fredericks) build on their chemistry and mutual admiration for Ernest Crichlow. (Jessica Palopoli photo)

The driver of the piece is Cross, who is a revelation. Each note she plays and the wide range of emotions she finds within is brilliant stuff. Just notice how she listens, reacts, eyes darting deep into a soul, displaying a heart that has been punctured. Each layer of texture she showcases is an example of what a good actor does – builds from the inside out. Hall, a striking performer in her own right, seems to have unlocked uncanny truth in Cross’ performance as her director.

Fredericks boasts a fantastic stage presence, commanding and assertive while displaying delectable vulnerability which makes for a richly balanced portrayal. Her ability to play needs is palpable.

The normalcy of seeing performers on stage is necessary balm as we continue to adjust to watching theatre in the past year. And each performance is enhanced greatly by elements of production. The strong sound design and compositions by Everett Elton Bradman is critical to the narrative. Heather Kenyon’s original artwork allows for an entry into Davis’ mind. And the live production video editing, an important position in modern theatre is handled sharply by Bill English and Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky.

Despite an ending that undercuts what the play does, a dismissal of truth traded for tidy denouement, “[hieroglyph]” doesn’t leave you soon. As ridiculous as Ernest sounds when going on a pointed rant, the realization that those beliefs aren’t uncommon is what devastates. In a world where there are still laws that absurdly place a crime squarely on the victim, there is a critical necessity to the timeliness of this play, a reminder of the perilous nature of what it means to be a young Black girl.

For Davis, the mission of an adult to love and protect her makes all the difference. And despite the devastation these women face, together Davis and Ms. T. combine to make one heartbreaking and beautiful painting.  

In the credits, the production is dedicated to Anne Abrams, a longtime publicist who passed a year ago. Anne was as warm as they come, highly committed, courageous and fiercely dedicated to the theatre companies she worked for, including San Francisco Playhouse and Children’s Musical Theater San Jose. A wonderful tribute to a gem of a woman.

WHAT TO KNOW

The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and San Francisco Playhouse present “[hieroglyph]”
Written by Erika Dickerson-Despenza
Directed by Margo Hall
The Word: A powerful and stirring narrative about trauma, with strong direction and committed performances.
Featuring Jamella Cross, Khary L. Moye, Safiya Fredericks and Anna Marie Sharpe
Streaming through April 3
Tickets range from $15 – $100
For streaming access, visit San Francisco Playhouse

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