By Lou Fancher
The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre is wasting no time spinning its wheels marking new Artistic Director Margo Hall’s debut as a talented leader with the release of [hieroglyph], the new play by Erika Dickerson-Despenza. Fully produced and filmed on stage at SF Playhouse, the on-demand video stream co-production runs March 13–April 3.
Telling the story of 13-year-old Davis, a young girl displaced to Chicago two months after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and tore her family apart, [hieroglyph] explores hefty topics: environmental racism, sexual violence, family and community displacement and trauma, exploitation of Black landowners and the tragic legacy of persistent state-sanctioned, man-made disasters. Throughout the drama, Davis wrestles with a complex maze of PTSD issues that arise due to an assault she experienced at the Superdome and kept secret. For Davis and other young Black children, perseverating trauma is the storm’s unspoken aftermath.
Dickerson-Despenza says she wrote the play from the perspective of Davis because “one in four Black girls will be sexually abused before the age of 18. Because Black girls and women at or over the age of 12 experienced higher rates of rape and sexual assault than White, Asian and Latina girls and women from 2005 to 2010.”
The statistics she references come from the National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community and U.S. DOJ Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Female Victims of Sexual Violence, 1994-2010,” 2013, respectively.
But the award-winning Black feminist poet-playwright, cultural worker, educator and grassroots organizer’s passion originates in core beliefs she learned from writers Toni Cade Bambara and Toni Morrison. “[They] taught me that to understand Black women we have to understand Black girls,” Dickerson-Despenza says. “I often think about the adultification of Black girls and the invisibilization of our girls’ experiences at the intersection of sexual violence and police violence. Centering the narrative on my protagonist, Davis, allows me to recover the story of so many, to correct the record put forth by New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) officials regarding what happened in the Superdome and beyond it.”
The play also allows Dickerson-Despenza to unleash her curiosity. What are the long-term effects of PTSD on children, like Davis, who survived Katrina and through involuntary displacement are part of the Katrina diaspora? She says national campaigns such as Because Me Too, Time’s Up, Protect Black Women and #SayHerName must center Black girls—especially trans Black girls—in their narratives. As one play in the Katrina cycle, [hieroglyph] is likely to introduce uncomfortable, but essential, conversations for Bay Area audiences about Black women, land ownership and social injustice atrocities performed at the intersection of public health crises and environmental racism.
All of which marks a hallmark moment and indicates the future directions pursued by San Francisco’s premier Black theater group. Hall has said in interviews she wants her legacy, in part, to be one of lifting up the voices of young artists, celebrating the cultural contributions of African Americans and presenting plays that represent the real world and have potential to change long-held perspectives. Now, as the iron curtain of Covid rises, it is up to theater companies such as LHT and audiences across the country to determine the shape of America’s post-pandemic theater world.