A new play [hieroglyph] by Erika Dickerson-Despenza makes its streaming debut with performances beginning March 13. The San Francisco Playhouse and Lorraine Hansberry Theatre co-production is directed by the latter’s artistic director Margo Hall.
[hieroglyph] features Jamella Cross, Safiya Fredericks, Khary L. Moye, and Anna Marie Sharpe and was filmed at SFP. It follows 13-year-old Davis, involuntarily displaced in Chicago two months post–Hurricane Katrina, where she wrestles with the cultural landscape of a new city and school community while secretly coping with the PTSD of an assault at the Superdome. With her mother still in New Orleans committed to the fight for Black land ownership and her father committed to starting a new life in the Midwest, divorce threatens to further separate a family already torn apart.
The work is part of Dickerson-Despenza’s planned 10-play Katrina Cycle of plays focused on the effects of the 2005 hurricane in and beyond New Orleans. Her plays include shadow/land and cullud wattah, the latter scheduled to premiere at The Public Theater in 2020 but canceled due to the pandemic. Both cullud wattah and [hieroglyph] were included in the 2019 edition of The Kilroys List. Earlier this year, Dickerson-Despenza was named a Susan Smith Blackburn Prize Finalist with winners announced in April.
The virtual production is available to stream on demand through April 3. Patrons may support the organization of their choice by purchasing tickets from Lorraine Hansberry Theatre at lhtsf.org or from San Francisco Playhouse at sfplayhouse.org.
Check out a Q&A with the playwright and director below, along with a gallery from the production.
Where did the initial inspiration for [hieroglyph] come from?
Erika Dickerson-Despenza: When I think of 504, I think of two things: Shatoya Currie and New Orleans. It was the Cabrini Green apartment number where Shatoya Currie (Girl X) was assaulted. I spent my girlhood in Chicago down the street from and in the aftermath of the 1997 case. That event colored my childhood in ways I am still discovering and healing from. It affected the lives of so many Black millennial women who grew up in Chicago. 504 is also the area code for the greater New Orleans area. I am the descendant of Black, Afro Creole and Sicilian people who have been in New Orleans since at least 1853. While I did not directly experience Hurricane Katrina and the state-sanctioned, man-made flood thereafter, many of my paternal relatives did.
One of the most haunting aspects of Black women and girls’ vulnerabilities during natural and unnatural disasters is the occurrence of sexual violence. Former New Orleans Police chief Eddie Compass’s denial that rape occurred in and beyond the Superdome as a way to quell fears and quiet mass media was an egregious erasure of the women and girls who did experience sexual violence while seeking refuge in the aftermath of these disasters.
I thought about what it meant to center Black girls in our national conversations of sexual violence and popular campaigns like Me Too and Time’s Up. I thought about the invisibilization and simultaneous adultification of Black girls, who all too often find ourselves at the intersection of gender-based and police violence of all kinds. [hieroglyph], a play whose real title is an inarticulable symbol, came from these considerations and literally from the numbers 504.
What has it been like preparing this show for a digital audience rather than an in-person one?
Dickerson-Despenza: It’s quite heartbreaking. [hieroglyph] is an intimate play and examines themes regarding various intimacies. It’s very challenging to stage such a work during a global pandemic which has necessarily called for isolation and confinement for our safety. The show is not written for screen, and I did not adapt the script for a digital life. But the intimacy of the script—in all but two-and-a-half scenes characters appear exclusively in pairs—is maintained through Margo’s staging efforts and strategic camera angles.
Hall: Since we are filming the play we had to find a balance between creating a theatrical experience with cinematic moments. I wanted to make sure the audience was watching a play but give them a closer look into the minds of the characters with some cinematic surprises.
What can audiences expect from the production?
Dickerson-Despenza: Audiences can expect a filmed theatrical experiment. Margo and I are playing with how to stage and film the psychic landscape of a Black girl experiencing complex PTSD. It’s a modern period piece. The play, like my protagonist Davis, is still very much in process. I have ideas about edits I’d like to make and stylistic renderings I’d like to try. There’s plenty of visual art in the play and I’m really proud of the young artists we’re able to feature in addition to paying homage to Ernest Crichlow. This production is a beautiful rendering of Black girl joy, a cross-country exchange of Black vernaculars, and a nuanced exploration of the various ways adults succeed and fail at protecting Black girls.
What’s the collaboration process with Erika been like?
Hall: It has been such a pleasure having Erika in the room. Her insight into the play is invaluable. I believe in a collaborative process, and having the playwright around keeps me on track with the intended vision for the play.
Where does [hieroglyph] fit into your 10-play Katrina Cycle?
Dickerson-Despenza: [hieroglyph] is the second play in my 10-play Katrina Cycle. While the Cycle is nonlinear and focuses on the Katrina diaspora across time, space, and place, [hieroglyph] and shadow/land are the most intimately connected.
How can audiences seek out more of your work after seeing [hieroglyph]?
Dickerson-Despenza: shadow/land will premiere as a free audio play at The Public Theater on April 13th, one month after our [hieroglyph] premiere. This play is a two-hander that takes place three months earlier than [hieroglyph]. It centers the story of Davis’s mother and grandmother, Ruth and Magalee, who are stuck in Shadowland, the family business, while Davis and Ernest are at the Superdome.
Hall: I'm putting the finishing touches on a podcast I'm working on with Leigh Fondakowski called The Consequential Feminist that should be out this summer—more information about my upcoming projects can be found at MargoHall.com. Lorraine Hansberry Theatre is producing an audio play reading of Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, and other projects are in the works—for more information, please visit LHTSF.org.