Interview: Margo Hall of [HIEROGLYPH] at Lorraine Hansberry Theatre Seizes the Moment to Champion Culturally-Specific Work

The venerable theatre company's first female artistic director helms a fully-staged, filmed production of Erika Dickerson-Despenza's striking new play

By: Mar. 08, 2021
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Interview: Margo Hall of [HIEROGLYPH] at Lorraine Hansberry Theatre Seizes the Moment to Champion Culturally-Specific Work
Margo Hall, Artistic Director of Lorraine Hansberry Theatre
and director of Erika Dickerson-Despenza's [hieroglyph]
(photo by Lisa Keating)

When Lorraine Hansberry Theatre announced last September that Bay Area theatre luminary Margo Hall had been appointed as its first female Artistic Director, it felt like a promise of good things to come. Six months later, the venerable company is back up and running full steam ahead with its first staged production since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Erika Dickerson-Despenza's [hieroglyph], available to stream on-demand March 13th through April 3rd. This co-production with Lorraine Hansberry Theatre's long-time collaborator San Francisco Playhouse is being directed by Hall, who seems to be the perfect person to bring it to life. Dickerson-Despenza is a Tow Playwright-in-Residence at New York's Public Theater who centers her writings on Black women's land legacies and distinct experiences of environmental racism. Telling the raw, honest story of a 13-year-old girl struggling Post-Hurricane Katrina, wrestling with being displaced to a new city while secretly coping with the PTSD of an assault at the Superdome, [hieroglyph] is part of Dickerson-Despenza's 10-play Katrina cycle focused on the effects of Hurricane Katrina and its state-sanctioned, man-made disaster rippling in & beyond New Orleans. Hall describes the play as "tragically beautiful." Patrons may support the organization of their choice by purchasing tickets from Lorraine Hansberry Theatre at lhtsf.org or from San Francisco Playhouse at sfplayhouse.org.

I caught up with Hall last week, just as she was preparing to meet her cast in person for the first time after weeks of Zoom rehearsals. Speaking to her, I got the distinct impression of someone who is exactly where she needs to be right now. This may be her first stint as an artistic director, but in so many ways she has been preparing for this role her entire life. Her decades of experience as an actor, director, playwright, professor and activist all coalesce to serve her in her new role. We talked about her hopes to expand Hansberry's purview, the need to create culturally-specific theatre, and the exigencies of producing theatre and TV (she is also acting in the new Blindspotting series) during Covid times. Throughout our conversation, I was struck by the sheer joy she exudes for making theatre and for finding herself in a place where she can create new opportunities for Black theatre artists. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

This is a pretty crazy time to be a new artistic director of a theatre company! How is it going?

It's going well. I think I came in at a good time for me, being a first-time artistic director. To be able to come into this position when there's not much producing to be done, it gives me a lot of learning opportunity. I can really get to know the organization, we can do some fundraising to prepare ourselves for what is to come. It gives me an opportunity to think deeply about the type of work I want to produce, and not have that pressure of "you need to put up a show!"

I'm interested in more than just doing performances. I'm really interested in having a nurturing ground and laying the groundwork to have mentorships and training and a lot of other things that I think should go with a theatre company, that unfortunately Lorraine Hansberry has not had in the past, recently. I've come in at a time when the organization is really getting to a [certain] place, getting a solid board, and looking forward to the future to being more than just a producing agent, but an actual, culturally-specific institution.

I spoke to Tim Bond awhile back just after he'd taken over as Artistic Director at TheatreWorks. He had been hired before Covid hit and then - boom! - his entire first season had to be scrapped right off the bat. So maybe it was actually better to start when you did.

Yes. Lorraine Hansberry Theatre had a production, Intimate Apparel, that was just about to go into previews [when Covid hit]. That was before I came, but that did kind of wipe out the finances. So one of the main things when I came on board was like "We need to do some fundraising." And not just "OK, let's call some folks and get some money." Let's really look at the funding for Black theatres. How do we not only raise funds for our theatre, but think about the funding institutions and how they need to change in order to really support culturally-specific work. Because as August Wilson said, "Black theatre thrives - it's just not funded."

So I've been looking on that on a national scale, and trying to contact different organizations, getting on funding panels so I can influence that conversation as well. But yeah, I spoke with Tim and that's crazy to have a whole season planned and then it just totally falls apart. It's really tough, but I always see a challenge as something you just overcome. That's why I was really excited when Bill [English, Artistic Director of SF Playhouse] came to me with the play [hieroglyph] and said, "Hey, this is a great play and I don't want to let it get away."

The first big decisions you make as an artistic director are very telling about your priorities. Why did you choose this particular play as the first one under your leadership?

Well, one of my initiatives as the first female Artistic Director of Lorraine Hansberry Theatre is to produce, promote and nurture Black female and fem-identified artists. I was very excited that this was a new play written by a Black, female, queer artist who is writing about Hurricane Katrina, one of the very few women who write about it. When Bill came to me with the play and the concept of how it was going to be produced, that we would film it onstage, I thought, "Yeah, this is what I'm interested in doing." I had not really been that interested in Zoom performances. Yeah, I've been a part of them and I directed some of them, and I'm not knocking anyone who is doing that work. I think that's the thing about artists - we're going to find a way to create, somehow, some way.

But for Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, nothing was coming to me that I was like "Oh, I want to throw this on Zoom." Then when Bill came to me with this play and it dealt with the abuse and the neglect, of harms being done to Black female bodies, I thought "This is my stuff." I was really excited, and then I met with the playwright, and I was like "Oh, yeah, this is what I'm all about." I'm all about promoting and nurturing these new artists, not necessarily young, but new artists bringing new stories to the table. And then Bill said, "We're gonna film it." And I said, "Let's do it. And let's do this as a co-production with Lorraine Hansberry Theatre." Which we'd done in the past.

I didn't know that.

Yeah, the very first play I ever directed for SF Playhouse was The Story and that was a co-production with Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, when [founders] Quentin [Easter] and Stanley [E. Williams] were still alive. And they've done a couple other co-productions with Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, so it seemed like the perfect fit. Then it was this huge challenge, right? Bringing four actors together, rehearsing over Zoom, literally blocking the play over Zoom, going into the space for five days - two days of staging, three days of filming - and then we're done.

You're only in the space for five days!?

That's it! [laughs] And we go in today. I can't wait to see the actors' faces. They're doing such amazing work. Just the work we've done over Zoom has been so powerful. I know that when they get in the space, it's just going to deepen this play so much.

After I get off this call with you, I'll go get another Covid test, because I've had three Covid tests in the last week and a half, and I'm getting a fourth today. All of us have to get our Covid tests, we have to quarantine so that we can be in the space together, and then we have different zones - like all of our design team cannot interact with the actors at all, and I personally can interact with the actors and our stage crew because we have had multiple tests. The union, Equity, is very clear that we have to take all our precautions, which as well we should, to protect everyone in the space.

Does that mean today will be the first time you will have been in the same room as the actors?

Yes! I'm so excited! [laughs] And we literally have two days for them to get in the space to stage it. We staged over Zoom, we videotaped the theater and the stage so the actors could see what it looks like. Our stage manager literally took stick figures and moved them around in the space as we staged, so the actors have a really good blueprint for when they go into the space, and then we just dig in. It'll be the first time with costumes, first time with everything. We had our first cue-to-cue tech yesterday, where I was in the space with designers, lighting, sets, all of that to go through the whole play and make sure everything is laid out because we don't really have a lot of time to do all the tech stuff, either.

Teching a show can already be kind of a nightmare, so I can't imagine doing it with the added challenge of Covid protocols.

Yeah, it's kind of like guerilla theater. Which is great, right? Because it's like grass roots, it's what you have to do when you want to put something up. And you have to do it in a way that's quick but done well. I think that Bill over at SF Playhouse has really found a way to do this. I mean, he did Art first. He was the first person, I think, in our community to stage something and film it. And then he did a musical, Songs for a New World, and now we're going in with a 4-person play, and this play has some intimacy so that was a whole other thing we had to tackle. How do you allow actors to touch each other?

So how does that work?

Well, we had to quarantine the two actors that are intimate with each other. We had to put them in a hotel, not together. For the four days before they are intimate with each other, they can have no contact with anyone. We have to literally bring food to them, or they order food. They just go across the street to the theater and go back to the hotel. And then they get all the appropriate Covid tests, including a rapid test right before, to make sure that they are safe to be able to be intimate. There was a lot of negotiating on behalf of our two companies with Equity to get this to happen.

When I watch something these days and see actors doing intimate scenes, it can make me feel uncomfortable because as a viewer I obviously don't see any evidence of the safety protocols. It puts me at ease to hear how strict you've been.

Oh, yes, really strict! I'm also working on Blindspotting, the TV show. I'm shooting that.

Oh, you are?!

Yeah, they're making the movie into a TV show for Starz.

Is it being shot locally?

No - in LA. But we're in Oakland this week. So in the midst of all of this, on Thursday I had to go and shoot an episode of Blindspotting.

Wow. You've got a lot going on!

And I've gotten Covid tests for that, too. Because they're also really strict.

I've been watching some TV series that have filmed new episodes with large casts, and I've wondered how they manage to do it safely. You can't all be quarantined, right?

So like the four episodes I've shot, first of all I get tested here a couple times before I get on the plane. Then I fly to LA and I quarantine in a hotel for 5 days, so I just go there and have to be in a hotel all by myself, no contact, and then they send people to the hotel to test me. Then when I show up on set, everyone gets tested every day. It's very similar [to how we're doing [hieroglyph]]. The actors are in a certain zone, they can only interact with the people who do the makeup and things like that. You constantly have a mask and a shield while you're rehearsing the scene, and then right while you shoot, you take everything off, you do the scene, and then you put everything back on. Then they say "go again" and you take the masks off and do the scene, and then you put the masks back on. It's really strict. And god forbid if anyone sneezes, then everything shuts down. They clean the whole room, they bring in vacuums... [laughs]

But at least everyone's motivated to comply with the protocols because you don't want to be the person that made them everything shut down, right?

Right. And you want to do the work. You know I'm so excited to be in a space with actors today. It's what we love so much. And trying to figure out ways to do that and be safe is so important just for our own sanity.

When I saw the announcement that you'd been named the new Artistic Director of Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, to be honest, my reaction was, "Well, of course!" It just made sense, given that you've been a major figure in the Bay Area theatre scene for decades. It seemed inevitable to me. Did it feel that way to you? Was it anything you had specifically aspired to?

No! [laughs] I mean I have such a great kind of freelance career, because I get to dabble in acting, directing, playwrighting and working as an activist, and I always just thought that was what I wanted to do. I had been approached a few times by Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, and I said, "You know, I'm not ready for that yet. I'm still kind of living my life the way I want to live it." And I also teach at UC Berkeley and Chabot College, so I wanted to make sure that nothing ever interfered with that. When I'm freelancing I can navigate that, you know?

And then everything happened - Covid hit, the death of George Floyd, the "We See You [White American Theater]" movement, all of these things started coming up. People started expressing feelings that had been inside and we had been avoiding and saying, "Oh, we have this great Bay Area community of theatre." But there have always been a lot of issues. I've been on the forefront of fighting for these issues and in meetings on equity and diversity, and I just... I had this really intense moment of clarity and I said, "I think it's time for me to take my energy and put it toward Black theatre." And to kind of move away from being part of predominantly white institutions, from trying to help them solve their problems around equity and diversity. I just said, "I have to give all my energy to my Black community."

And I went to Lorraine Hansberry Theatre initially as a volunteer. A few of us got together and said, "How can we support Lorraine Hansberry Theatre? Because we know they're gonna be one of the few that might not make it - just based on funding, just based on not having the legacy donors and all of that stuff. What can we do to help?" We contacted Darryl V. Jones, who was Artistic Director at the time. We all came together, and I was on the call talking to the managing director. At that point Darryl was leaving, he had just been an interim artistic director, and they were looking for someone [permanent]. I was just talking about what I wanted to do to help, volunteer, whatever, and Stephanie [Shoffner, Executive Director] said, "Would you like to take a walk?" [laughs] and I was like, "Okay..."

So we literally went on a hike, and I started talking about "Well, Lorraine Hansberry Theatre has to do this and that, and we could do this and that," and she was like, "Oh, so it's we?" and I said, "I guess it is." [laughs] And then she said, "What do you think? Would you like to come on board as the new artistic director?" And I said, "Yeah, I would." And then I thought, "What am I getting myself into?" [laughs] But in my gut I knew it was right. I knew it was the right time. I thought, "This is the time because I can go in and really get to know the organization." I can really figure out what this needs, for me. What truly do I want to do, what type of work do I want to continue to promote?

We've all been really patient around that, and not trying rush and feel like "Uh-oh, we've got to get something out there!" You know? We want to come together as an organization and really figure out what is the impact we want to make. And for me, that is not only producing plays, but building a cultural institution that's going to create new artists that are going to bring new voices, specifically female and fem-identified artists.

Now that Lorraine Hansberry Theatre is back up and running, what are you most looking forward to in the coming year?

Hmm... [very long, thoughtful pause] I'm most looking forward to creating a safe space for artists of color. I'm most looking forward to opening the doors of Lorraine Hansberry Theatre to folks who have felt that their work has been compromised for the white audience, the white gaze, and know that they can come home to a space where they can create what they want to create, that their work can be celebrated in an audience that is not afraid to laugh and scream and applaud.

I'm really looking forward to the new work that's going to come out of this time, because I feel like being locked down there are some works that are going to come out of this that are going to rejuvenate us in a way. I think a lot of people are like "Oh, it's gonna be depressing Covid stories." But I feel like it's gonna be deep, introspective stories that not only deal with Covid, but also deal with just deep thought, you know? I think a lot of young folks of color are really finding their voice, and they understand that their work is appreciated and people are hungry for it, so I'm looking forward to seeing what's going to come of that. And I'm also looking forward to people hopefully being real and honest around the issues of diversity and inclusion.

I don't know what that's gonna look like, but I have hope around it. My hope is that people will realize they don't have to compromise their work, because there are institutions that welcome their work and won't censor their work. And those institutions are now going to be funded, because there's so much advocacy and activism around funding culturally-specific institutions so they can compete with the larger institutions.

It seems to me that you're really in the right role at just the right time.

I think so, I hope so. I really do. I'm just so excited that I'm here for this time, and that I feel really clear about my vision and my mission. And that feels good.



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