During my extended winter stays in the San Francisco area over many years, I learned about and enjoyed the productions at the San Francisco Playhouse. With COVID-19 changing all the rules, I remained in the Chicagoland area throughout the winter. It is through the magic of virtual performances that I have continued to enjoy the offerings of San Francisco Playhouse. The Monday night mini-plays moderated by Bill English have been fascinating.
But nothing prepared me for the remarkable full-length production of [hieroglyph]. In Chicago and watching a play about Chicago originating in San Francisco, this was the most satisfying arts virtual production I have seen this year and among the best works I have ever seen. See this play!
[hieroglyph] by Erika Dickerson-Despenza is offered by San Francisco Playhouse (Artistic Director Bill English; Producing Director Susi Damilano) and Lorraine Hansberry Theatre (Artistic Director Margo Hall; Executive Director Stephanie Shoffner. The cast features Jamella Cross, Safiya Fredericks, Khary L. Moye, and Anna Marie Sharpe. All actors appear courtesy of Actors’ Equity Association. The work is directed by Margo Hall, marking Lorraine Hansberry Theatre’s first staged production since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and the first production Hall has directed for the company since taking the helm in September 2020.
Produced and filmed on stage at San Francisco Playhouse, [hieroglyph] is presented as an on-demand video stream from March 13th through April 3rd, 2021. Patrons may support the organization of their choice by purchasing tickets ($15 – $100) from Lorraine Hansberry Theatre at lhtsf.org or from San Francisco Playhouse at sfplayhouse.org.
This is the story of 13-year-old Davis who finds herself in Chicago two months post-Katrina, where she wrestles with a new city and school community, being an outsider, a teenager and she is secretly coping with the PTSD of an assault at the Superdome. She is in the full care of her father while her mother remains in New Orleans. A possible divorce threatens to further separate this family, already torn apart.
[hieroglyph] traverses the intersection of environmental racism, sexual violence, and displacement, examining the psychological effects of a state-sanctioned man-made disaster on the most vulnerable members of the Katrina diaspora. This work is part of award-winning playwright Dickerson-Despenza’s planned 10-play Katrina Cycle of plays focused on the effects of Hurricane Katrina in and beyond New Orleans.
Knowing Chicago and the Chicago Schools (where I worked), I was struck by how well the production captured the feel of Chicago, the specific school which does exist, the concern of the teacher. Jamella Cross as davis despenza hayes was captivating and convincing as she she conveyed the wish to fit in while trying to manage difficult situations, without the support she needed.
Safiya Fredericks as ms. T, the art teacher was convincing in her wish to make things better, and the difficulty in knowing where to draw the line. Khary L. Moye as ernest hayes, Davis’ father who was compelling as he struggled with how to keep his daughter safe in a new environment without his wife. Anna Marie Sharpe as leah, Davis’s one girlfriend who attempted to teach Davis the ropes.
The play itself was beautifully written and seamlessly moved from one difficult topic to the next while remaining a puzzle in terms of the “hieroglyph“. The acting was superb. The special effects enhanced the story. The end result worked extremely well giving the sense of watching a play while remaining at home. Somehow, the power of a live production was conveyed. This is a MUST see, and easily done from your couch.
Just a bit about Playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza. She is a Blk feminist poet-playwright, cultural worker, educator and grassroots organizer from Chicago, Illinois. One of America’s most in-demand rising playwrights, her recognition includes: Susan Smith Blackburn Prize Finalist (2021), Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award (2020), Thom Thomas Award (2020), Lilly Award (2020), Barrie and Bernice Stavis Award (2020), Grist 50 Fixer (2020), and the Princess Grace Award in Playwrighting/Fellowship at New Dramatists (2019).
About San Francisco Playhouse
Founded by Bill English and Susi Damilano in 2003, San Francisco Playhouse has been described by The New York Times as “a company that stages some of the most consistently high-quality work around” and deemed “ever adventurous” by the Bay Area News Group. Located in the heart of the Union Square Theater District, San Francisco Playhouse is the city’s premier Off-Broadway company, an intimate alternative to the larger more traditional Union Square theater fare. San Francisco Playhouse provides audiences the opportunity to experience professional theater with top-notch actors and world-class design in a setting where they are close to the action.
About Lorraine Hansberry Theatre
San Francisco’s premier Black theatre company , the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre is devoted to presenting theatrical works by, for, and about the African American experience, and providing employment and career building opportunities for actors, directors, designers, and technicians from the Black and multicultural communities. The company has produced more than 158 plays, including West Coast and World Premieres, experimental works, classics in the Black theatre canon, lively musicals, and poignant socio-political dramas. The company attracts one of the most eclectic audiences of any theatre in the San Francisco Bay region and prides itself on offering an inclusive and welcoming space.
Founded in 1981, the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre was named for the trail-blazing first Black female playwright to have a play performed on Broadway, as well as the youngest American and only fifth woman to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play. Hansberry’s groundbreaking 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun introduced mainstream audiences to complex and dignified Black characters and exposed the harsh reality of racial segregation in south Chicago.
[hieroglyph] by Erika Dickerson-Despenza
Directed by Margo Hall
Co-produced by San Francisco Playhouse and Lorraine Hansberry Theatre
March 13 through April 3, 2021
Streaming video at sfplayhouse.org (tickets required)
Patrons may support the organization of their choice by purchasing tickets ($15 – $100) from Lorraine Hansberry Theatre at lhtsf.org or from San Francisco Playhouse at sfplayhouse.org or by calling (415) 677-9596.
This play does deal with sexual assault and this is an important message
Photos: Courtesy of San Francisco Playhouse and Lorraine Hansberry Theatre