Review | Tulsa massacre horror reverberates in a solemn ‘High Ground’ at Arena

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By Amit


“The High Ground” is a play about Black anguish, of a sort not tempered by time. Indeed, as playwright Nathan Alan Davis lays out his thesis, the scars of the horror it details scald all the more, as the embers of century-old violence and injustice smolder, to this day.

The 1921 White-led Tulsa Race Massacre that burned some 35 blocks of the Black Greenwood district and left about 300 people dead is memorialized in this provocative if sometimes opaque world premiere in Arena Stage’s Kogod Cradle. Its central figure is a Black soldier named Soldier, played with appropriate outrage by Phillip James Brannon. In this nonlinear, time-bending story, Soldier scales the highest point in the district — Standpipe Hill — and occupies it, seemingly for all time, even as a Tulsa police officer (Nehassaiu deGannes) tries to talk him down.

What is our responsibility today to the memory of this devastating event that took so long to be acknowledged? It wasn’t until decades later that an official commission was set up to confirm as many historical facts as could be recovered. (According to the website of the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum, insurance companies had termed it a “riot” rather than a massacre, so they could deny benefits to the Black families who had lost property.)

Paige Hathaway’s set is dominated by an imposing brick tower that crowns the hill, emblazoned with the logo of the Tulsa campus of Oklahoma State University — a symbol, in a sense, of White institutional erasure of Black-owned land and Black history. The female characters deGannes portrays (a university student, a policewoman, Soldier’s wife) are the touchstones through which we grope for an understanding of Soldier’s pain. And ultimately, we hope, for the healing that he and the community can begin to experience, through love.

Davis and director Megan Sandberg-Zakian don’t make it particularly easy to engage deeply with the material, as some of the contrivances in the 75-minute production distract from the more lyrical, and harrowing, aspects of the play. Oddly, for example, the narrative is punctuated by the entrances and exits of stage managers who, with little flourishes, present the actors with such incidental props as scissors and toy guns. The stagy devices give the impression of notions that may have seemed like brainstorms in rehearsal but in performance feel overly artificial.

Perhaps it’s the urgent need to comprehend the magnitude of the Tulsa massacre that leaves a spectator feeling a bit shortchanged. The elements of a compelling tale, revealing how little has changed in more than 100 years, are apparent: Only the intervention of the compassionate policewoman, who sees Soldier as a man rather than a threat, prevents the standoff on Standpipe Hill from devolving into the police shooting of another Black man.

And Sandberg-Zakian’s pair of actors certainly breathe admirable life into Davis’s construct. “Three hundred dead,” Brannon’s Soldier reminds us, again and again and again, then also informs us that the number may be higher. That awful blur is another stain on history, one that ennobles “The High Ground’s” mission.

The High Ground, by Nathan Alan Davis. Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian. Set, Paige Hathaway; costumes, Sarita Fellows; lighting, Sherrice Mojgani; music and sound, Nathan Leigh. With the voices of Rachel Felstein and Peter Boyer. About 75 minutes. Through April 2 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW.

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