Trauma in [hieroglyph] and 5 new plays from On Women Festival and Arts Incubator Short Play Fest

“[hieroglyph],” a play by Erika Dickerson-Despenza, begins with a mystery:  Why is a teenager named Davis placing strange symbols on her drawings for art class? They are disturbing enough that her art teacher calls in her father for a teacher-parent conference.
The key to these hieroglyphs, we discover by the play’s end, is a traumatic event – but not the trauma we assumed.
It struck me that trauma is the thread that runs through six currently running plays I happened to see in a row, including “Walking with Bubbles” by Jessica Hendy at the On Women Festival at Irondale, and all four plays in Irving Theater’s Arts Incubator Short Play Fest. This probably should not surprise anyone; trauma has been an everyday occurrence for many people over the past year. 

through April 3

Filmed on stage at the San Francisco Playhouse in a co-production with Lorraine Hansberry Theater, Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s play is given a fine production by director Margo Hall with a cast of four first-rate performers. 

Davis (Jamella Cross) and her father Ernest (Khary L. Moye) are refugees from Hurricane Katrina. They moved to Chicago two months earlier, after having  been housed with other survivors in the Superdome. Ernest has separated from Davis’s mother, who is living in a FEMA trailer back in Louisiana. 

At the parent-teacher conference, Davis’ art teacher Ms. T (Safiya Fredericks) expresses concern about the cryptic messages Davis seems to be sending through her artwork, although Davis has denied that they mean anything. But Ernest is more concerned that his daughter is interested only in art class, inattentive in her academic subjects, although she was always an A student back home. “Davis is smart, real smart,” Ernest says. “Her report card makes no sense.” Ms. T counsels patience;  “she needs time to adjust…give her time.”

“Time is for white people,” Ernest replies. “Davis is a black girl from the South. She’s got to work twice as hard and be three times as good.”
“Three times as good?”
“Twice as good as the white folk, and a step above the uppity Northern black ones.”

Ms. T argues that art class is good for David because, free to express herself, “it may be the only place where she’s processing her trauma.”
“Trauma? You said it was an adjustment issue. Now it’s trauma!?” 

But Ernest agrees to Ms. T’s suggestion for a tutor and a counselor. In the next scene, we see Davis at home with Leah (Anna Marie Sharpe), a classmate who has been enlisted as her algebra tutor but has clearly become a quick friend; they talk less about the x and y axes, and more about boys, with Leah teaching Davis some seductive new dances.

In these scenes, and many of those that follow, the playwright shows a wonderful ear for dialogue, a heart for her characters, and even a well-informed eye:   I especially appreciate Ms. T’s lectures about the art of Ernest Crichlow, a Harlem Renaissance painter who often depicted strong Black women — and whom I interviewed before he died at age 91.

 But as the 100 minutes of the play unfolds,  “[hieroglyph]” turns out to be about the trauma of rape. I won’t go into details except to say that the trauma takes over the play, replacing what seemed a nuanced exploration of character into something more akin to an explicit social issue play meant to educate the audience similar to “To the Moon” , a play by Beth Kander about domestic violence (online through April 11 via Creede Repertory Theater of Colorado) in which all eight characters are victims. 

Walking With Bubbles 
On Women Festival through March 28

Bubbles is the nickname that Jessica Hendy, a Broadway actress (Aida, both Broadway productions of Cats), gives to her son Beckett in this one-woman play (plus cellist) that she has written and performs based on their jolting real-life experience.  She introduces the trauma obliquely in the first scene, while standing in front of a bench and a no parking sign, and talking about their move from a big house in Cincinnati to a small apartment in Harlem, when she is approached by a homeless man “wearing old clothes with a coat too big for him, and a cinched-up belt.” She offers him a sandwich, which he puts in his grungy backpack.

This is Jessica’s ex-husband Adam,  Beckett’s father, who, we learn later, has followed her from Ohio, hitching rides to New York.  

The rest of “Walking with Bubbles” is Hendy’s account of their courtship, marriage, and his mental decline, followed by the ups and downs of his condition, and her struggles to balance an effort at compassion with a need to protect herself and her child. It was filmed on a stage with some half dozen playing areas, each of which represents the site of some incident that she narrates — the church where Adam burst into loud tears during a service, the room that that he completely trashed, the therapist’s office where she sought answers.

Her storytelling is too vibrant to be called merely an account of trauma — too filled with incident, as well as the occasional song, and the accompaniment of cellist Jacob Yates (which probably shouldn’t work as well as it does.) The only time she talks explicitly about trauma is when, near the beginning of their troubles, Adam decides they need to move to St. Thomas in the Caribbean. “I’m not what you call beach material,” she says, referring to her pale skin. “I have severe PTSD from the horrible sunburns I got as a kid.”  Post-traumatic stress disorder — so familiar she doesn’t even have to spell it out.

The Arts Incubator Short Play Festival
through March 28

There are four plays presented in this hour-long, first-ever virtual festival by Irvington Theater, in Irvington, New York,  some 20 miles north of Manhattan. Each one introduces a trauma; several feel like early drafts of a work that could be developed further.

In “Guilt is a Mother” by Rachel Yong, Leemore Malka and Rory Kulz portray an estranged couple, living separately, who apparently have not told their parents they’ve split up, which is only possible because everybody is in lockdown, communicating only (as in this play) via Zoom call.

The Yellow Wallpaper” is a musical adaptation by Eliza Randall and Sam Norman of the nineteenth century short story of the same name written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, about a woman being forced into isolation as treatment for her ailments – the treatment being the trauma that turns her insane. She starts thinking she’s part of the wallpaper. In the original short story, the narrator’s original diagnosis is “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency.” In the musical, the creative team turns the diagnosis of Charlotte (Vaibu Mohan) into one of the seven songs, her husband John (Mason McDowell) citing the doctor as he sings:

He said you’re despondent 
And looking rather drained. 
He said you’re erratic 
And maybe overstrained. 
So this place is perfect. 
It’s silent as a tomb. 

while in the same song, John’s sister Mary (Hannah Fernandes) sings in counterpoint:

And so you see it’s for the best, dear,
To rest here
and convalesce. 

Director Max Mackay appropriately allows the yellow of the wallpaper to take over the Zoom, driving home Charlotte’s isolation, which has an unmistakable resonance these days

In “Black and Blue” by Samuel Harps, Dameon Reilly as a black cop named Jonah comes home to his wife Reena (Maiysha Jones Reilly) and their (annoyingly bawling) infant, upset at the mass protest – “There are thousands of people running around out there, some of them aren’t even wearing mask.” — especially the violent confrontations he witnessed, including those directed at him. 

“I take the uniform off, and I’m a target. Now I’ve got to be a target in uniform!!?”

His wife doesn’t want him to return to duty.

“After what happened to David three years ago, I… I….can’t stop thinking about something happening to you…”
 “That was an accident.” 
“Was it? An accident, Jonah. We’ve heard it all before, haven’t we…? “It was dark…he was not in uniform…he didn’t identify himself…He had gun…” 
“Ok. Ok”

If you’re black in America, the playwright is saying, the trauma is both past and ever-present.

In “The Waiting Room” by Alli Hartley-Kong, two women post-pandemic who don’t know each other are waiting to see the doctor in a fertility clinic. This is a first visit for Natalie (Jenn Bedell), a comedian who is trying out jokes on the initial resistant Katherine (Kathleen Mallon) who just wants to read about the royal baby in a waiting room magazine. 

But Katherine warms to Natalie, they confide with one another. Katherine wants to know if Natalie has ever heard a joke about miscarriage? The conversation turns to trauma (although never using that word), and whether it’s ever appropriate to go public about it. Katherine’s response sounds like something of a credo for theater artists:  “We gotta live in the sorrows if we’re gonna live in the joys? I mean, right?”

One could probably argue that most drama is based on trauma – “an emotional response to a terrible event,” as the American Psychological Association defines it. On the basis of these plays, I wonder if the wider the lens through which that trauma is viewed — allowing us to see more angles and aspects of the characters – the more effective the theatrical experience.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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