Can’t read the Writing on the Wall: [hieroglyph] world premiere by SF Playhouse and Lorraine Hansberry Theatre

“Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, Amiri Baraka and other black male leaders have righteously supported patriarchy. They have all argued that it is absolutely necessary for black men to relegate black women to a subordinate position both in the political sphere and in home life.”
– bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman

*[TRIGGER WARNING: both the play and this review address sexual assault.]

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a Black critic of the arts, it’s that it may be the one job more thankless than being a Black artist. The latter is rarely welcome, but we’re often tolerated for the sake of boosting a company’s DEI numbers. A Black critic has no such luxury – we’re despised by white artists because we call them out on their racist bullshit, and we’re equally hated by Black artists for not automatically loving their work. “If I wanted to hear that,” they tell us, “I’d read what white folks say about my shit!”

Whether it be art or art critique, I know going in that I’m not going to change anyone’s mind. Yet, I’d be remiss not to apply my knowledge and experience to a field where a face like mine is barely represented, if at all.

As I write these words, I’m minutes past just having watched the opening night performance of the world premiere production of Erika Dickerson-Dispensa’s [hieroglyph], produced by the SF Playhouse and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre. Incidentally, it’s the second play I’ve seen in several months penned by a Black woman and dealing with sexual trauma. But whereas that other play succeeded in deconstructing self-made myths to reveal ugly truths, this one is driven by one of the worst lies in modern American history.

Things haven’t been the same for Davis (Jamella Cross) and her father (Khary Moye) since they moved to Chicago. (Photo: Jessica Palopoli)

The play is set in the aftermath of the levees breaking in New Orleans. Davis Hayes (Jamella Cross) and her father Earnest (Khary Moye) have relocated to Chicago, leaving Davis mother behind. Davis’ art teacher, Ms. T (Safiya Fredericks), thinks her new student shows promise as an illustrator, but is shaken by the subject matter that frequently appears in her pictures.

As Davis adjusts to life with help of her new friend Leah (Anna Marie Sharpe), all of the people in her life unexpectedly come together in a way that will force Davis and those around her to deal with the repercussions of actions they’ve tried to forget.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: the entire plot of this play hinges on Davis having been raped at the Superdome during the hurricane evacuation. Do you see the problem? Is it clear already? Playwright Dickerson-Dispensa chose to write a story about surviving sexual trauma – which is admirable – but she chose to do so based around one of the most horrendous urban myths of our era: the story that the Superdome became a den of rape and murder.

Time and time and time again, these stories were shown to not only be untrue, but further exaggerated by a Bush-loving right-wing media that loved to peddle the story about a stadium full of Black folks being full of the worst of the worst. To hear it from white folks was annoying, but not surprising; to hear it from a Black playwright is blatantly irresponsible. Furthermore, she draws a direct connection between those fictional stories and the actual assault of Girl X, as if to make the world’s worst straw man argument as to why you should never – ever – be alone with a Black man for any reason.

The above-linked The Light by Loy A. Webb also dealt with a main character who is a Black woman not believed by Black men when she fingers one of their heroes as her rapist; they just can’t believe that “a good brotha” would possibly commit the one crime worse than murder. The difference between the two plays is that Webb knew how to call Black men out on their hypocrisy, but not to think of them the way white men think of them. She knew that being a Black man still entitles one to male privilege and makes them complicit in rape culture, even if indirectly.

Davis (Jamella Cross) can be herself around Leah (Anna Marie Sharpe). (Photo: Jessica Palopoli)

Dickerson-Dispensa thinks that being a Black man naturally makes one akin to being a rapist. One usually has to go to Newsmax or Breitbart to find that kind generalization.

Mind you, this isn’t the only the only problem with the script. No sooner had the play begun when it fell into the trap of falling back on trite, workmanlike dialogue. The characters don’t develop so much as they dump exposition clumsily. These characters are rarely people, so much as avatars for an argument.

If anything saves the production from being a complete wash, it’s the fact that Ms. T is played by Safiya Fredericks. Fredericks has long been one of the Bay Area’s best talents, and her natural skills have elevated even the worst scripts. This one is no exception. It’s all the more apparent watching her paired with Khary Moye, who’s long been on the opposite end of that spectrum.

Director Margo Hall – herself a damn-fine actor, and the new AD of Lorraine Hansberry – does her best to give her cast moments of humanity missing from the text, but they can only do so much with a script so shallow. Still, Hall gets another fine performance from Jamella Cross (with whom I’ve worked before), even though she has a shaky grip on her accent throughout the play.

Hall, Cross, and Fredericks are exemplary of how performing artists can be above the material with which they’re working.

Earnest (Khary Moye) refuses to accept what Ms. T (Safiya Fredericks) tells him about Davis. (Photo: Jessica Palopoli)

This past summer, SF Playhouse was one of the many theatres called out in the infamous Living Document for their less-than-stellar history of working with PoC Bay Area talent. Like Shotgun, their choice to give prominent space in the new season to a play by a Black woman – covering such sensitive material, no less – is a great step in the right direction. (Their upcoming production of Cashed Out, by Native American playwright Claude Jackson, Jr., is also promising.)

But good intentions don’t automatically equal high quality. [hieroglyph] may be guided by an assured hand to nourish reliable talent, but its plot is based on a lie that we’re meant to accept at face value and agree with stereotypical conclusions it draws. That is not only anti-intellectual, it undercuts the serious topic (sexual assault) that the text covers.

Ms. T implores Earnest not to believe the lie he’s accepted for so long. The playwright who wrote those words should take her own advice.

GRADE:                                             D+

[hieroglyph] is scheduled to stream until the 3rd of April on the SF Playhouse website.
The show runs 1 hour 38 min. with no intermission.
Be advised that this play revolves around the topic of sexual assault.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

Categories: Theatre

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