Theater Review: [HIEROGLYPH] (San Francisco Playhouse and Lorraine Hansberry Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on March 28, 2021

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s [hieroglyph], now streaming from San Francisco Playhouse and and Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, belongs to a genre known as Theatre of Identity, aka Social Issues Theatre. The idea is to call attention to a particular cultural identity or crisis – in this case, the rape of young black women. Plays such as this have been hitting the stages with frequency since I began reviewing in L.A. 13 years ago. And with good reason. While the conversation becomes more and more public about gut-wrenching societal problems, the problems don’t seem to be getting better. In fact, just in the last week, racism against Asians and Jews joined forces with another mass murder. It seems things are getting worse, so theater is ripe to dramatize this type of subject matter.

Davis Jamella Cross) and her father Ernest Hayes (Khary L. Moye)
talk about Davis’s grades at her new school.

On Bill English’s turntable stage, we meet — in Director Margo Hall’s fully-staged filmed production — high-schooler Davis (Jamella Cross) who, with her father Ernest (Kahry L. Moye), has left her mother, the horrors of Hurricane Katrina and the inhumane conditions of the Superdome behind them for a new start in Chicago. But leaving such conditions behind isn’t so easy. Especially for Davis, who we learn early on in her dreams has been sexually abused. Lea (Anna Marie Sharpe) is Davis’s outgoing new friend who offers advise about boys and dancing. At school, Davis excels in art class, the teacher of which all too easily deciphers Davis’s artwork as a cry to be heard (Safiya Fredericks is awesome as Ms. T.). The actors are all powerful, but can’t make up for the script’s shortcomings.

Ernest (Khary L. Moye, left) and Ms. T. (Safiya Fredericks, right)
argue over how best to help Davis (Jamella Cross).

The problem with many of the newer Social Issue Plays, however, is that they often sacrifice storytelling for sentimentality. Also, they usually contain educational preaching and/or happy endings for the disenfranchised therein. Although these plays demonstrate varying degrees of efficacy, depending upon on their production values and the subject matter (both of which are outstanding here), they all avoid true greatness because the scripts tend to concentrate on the issues.

Ernest (Khary L. Moye) and Davis (Jamella Cross) share a father-daughter moment.

And such is the case with this harrowing one-act because the playwright — despite her ability to write well — wears her agenda on her sleeve, leaving us with little to discover in this on-the-nose script. Instead of being provocative, [hieroglyph] veers towards an agenda-riddled adult After School Special in which all three female characters in the play have been raped at different times and places, and the one man has trouble “getting it” when a woman says “No”. Instead of hearing real-life black poets and artists being quoted to make a point, it would be so much more interesting to find characters grappling with art as a way toward healing. It’s actually cloying here, while in Dominique Morriseau’s essential drama, Pipeline, Gwendolyn Brooks’ urban lyric “We Real Cool” is used as a springboard for the action.

Ernest (Khary L. Moye) and Ms. T. (Safiya Fredericks) get to know one another.

It’s not too late for father and daughter to listen and learn from each other in the end. But in a surprise twist, a brand-new character only referred to before, has shown up at their doorstep. This clearly should be the end of Act I, but it is the end of the play. I suspect the author will continue this story as a way to create more episodes like TV series for theater (podcasting from The Public beginning April 13, Katrina gets another examination in Dickerson-Despenza’s SHADOW/LAND, the first of her 10-cycle plays on the Katrina diaspora).

Ernest (Khary L. Moye) discusses his daughter’s artwork with Ms. T. (Safiya Fredericks).

But tell me it’s not too late to trim at least half of this one-act down to the meatiest elements; that resides in the awkward maturation of two teenage girls; the black man struggling for a better life only to find himself in hot water again; and the teacher who is on the razor’s edge of balancing education, protection, and a personal life. These are beautifully crafted people. Three characters we never meet — who are equally fascinating to me — must appear in Act II for the real confrontational showdown this play deserves. And, please, no more dreams.

Leah (Anna Marie Sharpe), Davis’s classmate in school.

What we also need less of is the hammering of horrors in descriptions that fall from the characters’ lips like speeches or the nightly news. There’s just too much exposition. The best conflicts in this piece happen offstage not on. (One of the most monstrous depictions of rape I’ve ever seen on stage was in West Side Story, when we witness a woman turning from helper to hater before our eyes when a gang taunts here — and there’s no blood, no entry, no weapons, no multimedia.)

Ernest (Khary L. Moye, left) and Ms. T. (Safiya Fredericks, right)
argue over how best to help Davis (Jamella Cross).

Audience members craving to see issues that affect their community portrayed on stage are far more apt to ignore a script’s shortcomings. The thorny concern for critics, at least, is that multicultural sensitivity has tainted critical reception; negative evaluation – even if it’s about the play’s awkward dramatic structure – can be perceived as prejudicial. Thus, problematic Social Issue Plays like [hieroglyph] tend to receive unduly favorable feedback.

photos by Jessica Palopoli

co-produced by San Francisco Playhouse and Lorraine Hansberry Theatre
streaming ends April 3, 2021
for tickets, visit SF Playhouse or Hansberry Theatre

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