WASHINGTON, DC – In recognition of America’s celebration of Black History Month, many area theaters have mounted plays which tell stories drawn from the American Black experience. Arena Stage’s ongoing commitment of producing newly-commissioned American “Power Plays” engages audiences by broadening their knowledge of American history – by expressing the very human side of some of our country’s seminal events. To date Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith has produced eight commissioned plays with 17 more to come, each story bearing witness to history and its effect on the human heart. “The High Ground” is the ninth in this great American experiment.
Written by award-winning playwright, Nathan Alan Davis, the play draws us in by expressing both tenderness and tragedy following the events of the Tulsa Race Massacre in the spring of 1921. The worst incident of racial violence in American history, in just two days, it resulted in the destruction of what was known as Black Wall Street, 300 innocent people dead, burned hospitals, schools, churches, and looted houses. Began by a White mob, it displaced roughly 10,000 Blacks who lived and worked in the community of Greenwood. The Massacre was falsely called a riot by police, who brought in heavy armor, machine guns, and aircraft – not to keep order but to assist the mob. When the dust cleared, it turned into a land grab for local Whites.
Davis tells this vivid story through a young Black man (Phillip James Brannon) who was shot and killed during the onslaught, returning in spirit to find his community gone. In its place stands Oklahoma State University. The setting is the university’s tower, high upon Standpipe Hill. “Soldier”, as he calls his spirit self, shows signs of severe PTSD. He is reliving the horrific events of the Massacre and searching for his wife, played by Nehassaiu deGannes (in all the female roles). She first appears to him as Victoria, a former neighbor and student who begs him to leave and accompany her to a funeral; next as Vicky, a policewoman who tries to save his life from an approaching posse of armed police; and lastly as his wife Vee who pleads with him to abandon the hill and leave with her. Robed in a white silk gown, Vee, like the Greek prophetess Cassandra, bears witness to the tragedy and its aftermath, warning of its power to destroy future generations, yet knowing her prophesy will go unheeded.
Brannon and deGannes are more than up for the task in this two-hander which has many moving parts and a wealth of deeply emotional dialogue. In transitioning between three separate roles – as college student, policewoman, and wife – deGannes displays an impressive ability to inhabit three distinctly different characters and showcase her range. For Brannon, maintaining the combative persona of the anxiety-plagued soldier still capable of love, it is a brilliant achievement.
Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian stages the play with great sensitivity leaning into the pathos and tension created between the characters, the unfolding tragedy and the legacy such violence leaves in its wake.
Set Design by Paige Hathaway; Costume Design by Sarita Fellows; Lighting Design by Sherrice Mojgani; Original Music and Sound Design by Nathan Leigh; Dramaturgs Otis Ramsey-Zöe and Jocelyn Clarke.
Through April 2nd at Arena Stage in the Kogod Cradle, 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information visit www.ArenaStage.org or call the box office at 202 488-3300.