In 2016, Arena Stage’s artistic director, Molly Smith, commissioned a cycle of 25 power plays—plays that seek to tell the authentic stories of notable people and events throughout American history. The authenticity is certainly at the heart of Nathan Alan Davis’ “The High Ground,” one of the power plays debuting during Smith’s final season at Arena Stage.
…a turbulent and sobering night of theatre that speaks to many of the issues we face today in light of the devastating history that we simply cannot afford to turn our backs on.
“The High Ground” focuses on a character called Soldier (Phillip James Brannon). Soldier is the haunting embodiment of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. For two days, from May 31 to June 1, Black residents of the Greenwood District in Tulsa were shot and brutally murdered. Black neighborhoods were decimated and people’s cries for help went unanswered. It was one of the most horrific events in U.S. history, and one that, tragically, not enough people even know about. Davis’ play seeks to change that.
Soldier represents more than just the ghost of this hundred-year-old tragedy. He is the time-bending incarnation of oppression, systemic racial violence, and disempowerment. At one point, Soldier pointedly observes that no one can fathom how many times he’d been shot at—a loop from which this country cannot seem to escape. The character’s namelessness appears deliberate, a searing commentary on the inability of people to actually “say the names” of all of the Black victims killed in the line of living.
Along with Soldier, the play features his eternal love interest (Nehassaiu deGannes), past, present and future. At first she is Victoria, a friend, someone in whom he can confide. She then appears as Vicky, the no-nonsense cop who tries to talk him down. She is also Vee, his desperate wife struggling to get him to “surrender.” Their love story wraps itself around the core themes of the play, bringing the political, the cultural and the personal into perfect alignment. In fact, at play’s end, love emerges as the hopeful, yet hesitant, victor in many ways.
Megan Sandberg-Zakian’s direction deftly handles the interplay between the chaotic uncertainty inherent in the subject matter and the story of two people trying hard to cling to a lifetime (or multiple lifetimes) of soulmate-level intimacy. That intimacy is their sustenance and their key to survival here. The two characters at the core of this piece fully come alive through Brannon and deGannes’ portrayals. Brannon brings audiences deep into the spiral of his pain, his paranoia, and his anger. His performance is profoundly poetic—from speech to movement. deGannes commands the stage in her own right. Each of her respective characters, to include the “Woman in Black,” has an important story to tell. And, as her various personas remind, that story spans generations. She is the eloquent vessel through which this tragedy speaks, taking viewers on a veritable journey through time.
Also at the heart of this play is Standpipe Hill—a key site in the Tulsa Race Massacre. Set design by Paige Hathaway certainly does the historic locale justice while smartly utilizing the expansive space of the Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage. Lighting Design by Sherrice Mojgani and Nathan Leigh’s sound design contribute to the magnitude of Davis’ message while keeping the overall ambiance of the play intimate and mysterious. The High Ground packs a great deal into 70 minutes. It’s a turbulent and sobering night of theatre that speaks to many of the issues we face today in light of the devastating history that we simply cannot afford to turn our backs on.
Running time: Approximately 70 minutes with no intermission.
“The High Ground” runs through April 2, 2023 at Arena Stage in the Kogod Cradle, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, DC 20024. Tickets can be purchased by calling the box office at 202-488-3300, Tuesdays–Sundays, 12 -8 p.m. or online. COVID Safety: Arena Stage requires that patrons, staff, and volunteers wear masks unless actively eating or drinking, regardless of vaccination status.