Content warning: sexual assault
“[Hieroglyph]” is a San Francisco Playhouse and Lorraine Hansberry Theatre co-production, available for streaming from March 13 to April 3. Written by Erika Dickerson-Despenza, the play focuses on 13-year-old Davis (Jamella Cross) and her involuntary displacement to Chicago with her father, Ernest (Khary L. Moye), after surviving Hurricane Katrina. “[Hieroglyph]” addresses intersections of race, gender, class and culture in its representations of trauma, illustrating the heartbreaking injustices experienced by sexual assault survivors.
After being displaced to Chicago, Davis struggles to process the trauma of a sexual assault that took place in the Superdome, where she and her father took shelter during the hurricane, as well as the ongoing pain of missing her mother, who remains in New Orleans. The play addresses various dimensions of Davis’ dislocation and trauma, which range from her assault and the loss of her home to the death of her friends and the shock of a new culture. Davis’ relationship with her father is central to the play, as he clearly loves her but struggles with the implications of his own toxic masculinity, inability to listen and perpetuation of rape culture.
A second relationship central to the plot is the friendship between Davis and Leah (Anna Marie Sharpe), which demonstrates both the joys of female friendship and the pressures placed on Black girls. Leah’s attempts to teach Davis how to juke are humorous and relatable, but also illustrate the pressures Davis must confront to fit in culturally and sexually — Leah tells her that her southern dance moves are embarrassing and her lack of sexual experience makes her a “prude.”
Leah, however, also points out an important failing of society when she states that the way women dress and their sexual experience has nothing to do with sexual assault, recounting the horrific details of nine-year-old Shatoya Currie’s rape, one of the people to whom Dickerson-Despenza dedicated the play.
Hieroglyphics are a unique form of symbolism that Dickerson-Despenza utilizes to convey trauma; in fact, “[Hieroglyph]” is not even the real title of the play, but a stand in for an inarticulable symbol. The use of hieroglyphics occurs consistently throughout the play, as Davis’s Art teacher, Ms. T. (Safiya Fredericks), points out Davis’ repeated use of them to her father. The use of symbols to illustrate a trauma that struggles to be spoken and that others struggle to understand relates to much of the play’s interpersonal conflict — the silencing of survivors, the lack of understanding between father and daughter and the dislocation between cultures.
Using art to process trauma is a significant and visually engaging component of the play. Davis’ artwork is projected onto a screen at the back of the stage whenever characters are discussing it, providing a visual window into understanding her experience. Davis herself states, “I ain’t got no words no more really, just pictures. Like flashbacks.” In between scenes, as the stage spins to a new setting, blue waves are projected onto the screen with hieroglyphic symbols layered on top, while oversaturated and overexposed images of the Superdome are projected during Davis’s nightmares — during which the audience learns fragmented details of her assault.
“[Hieroglyph]” elicits a range of turbulent emotions, as many moments of the play are heart-wrenchingly unfair, unanswered and unspoken. Characters are assaulted, silenced, blamed and not believed. While the intensity of this trauma may be difficult for audience members to absorb, it is incredibly important that survivors have their stories represented and that people understand the depth of pain and injustice they experience.
The superb performances of Cross, Fredericks, Moye and Sharpe engage wholeheartedly with the complex experiences, relationships and attributes of their characters. Together, they craft such a depth of realism that the audience is left yearning to hear more and to know these characters beyond their trauma.
It feels supremely unfair that the play ends so abruptly, with many questions left unanswered and feelings of pain and shame left unaddressed, no clear resolution in sight. However, this is the importance and the impact of “[Hieroglyph]”; for too many survivors, there has been no resolution, and their stories have been left untold.