Review: THE HIGH GROUND at Arena Stage

THE HIGH GROUND delivers a short but strong performance at Arena Stage

By: Feb. 26, 2023
Review: THE HIGH GROUND at Arena Stage
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There's something special happening in the Kogod Cradle Theatre at Arena Stage from now until early April. Nathan Alan Davis's world premiere play, THE HIGH GROUND, is much more than a play about the infamous 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. It's a thought-provoking piece forcing us to consider the cyclical nature of problematic race relations in this country; it's a statement on police brutality towards people of color; and, it's a mediation on love, family, and a sense of belonging in the world. It's a dense piece more poetic in style than a traditional play, which makes it all the more amazing that the play clocks in right around a tight 75 minutes.

Davis's THE HIGH GROUND follows a formula to tell its story, but it's anything but formulaic or derivative. It's broken up into three, brief vignettes that feature just two characters repeatedly interacting throughout: a man we will come to know only as "Soldier" (played by Phillip James Brannon) and a woman (played by Nehassaiu deGannes). Brannon portrays the soldier in each scene but it's deGannes who portrays someone different in each vignette.

The play's action begins (and stays) on Standpipe Hill in present-day Tulsa, Oklahoma. It's a "slow burn" piece that drops you into the action without much exposition. This could be frustrating at first, but stick with it, and you'll clue into what's going on. More a symbol than an actual person, we meet Soldier, who seems to be guarding or protecting something on top of this hill. Is it the red brick tower itself on Standpipe Hill eventually adorned with the Oklahoma State University logo? Is it the high ground, which happens to be a well-known tactical warfare advantage, overlooking the city of Tulsa below? Or, is it something more that we can't see? As is true of much of this show, Davis asks the audience to do the heavy lifting here interpreting as they wish, and it's a real strength of the play.

Regardless, Soldier seems keen on two things: standing his ground atop Standpipe Hill and rattling off sobering statistics and facts from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre:

May 31, 1921 - June 1, 1921. 300+ killed. Hundreds, and possibly thousands, more injured. Tens of thousands of Black Tulsa residents displaced.

Solider drills these phrases into our heads as the audience is forced to consider the stark realities of what occurred to a thriving Black community, known then as Black Wall Street, in Tulsa in 1921. This is the setting in which Soldier is joined on stage by an Oklahoma State University graduate student named Victoria (Nehassaiu deGannes).

Again, we aren't given much here when we meet Victoria. We get the sense she knows Soldier, has visited him before and is no stranger to his erratic behavior. The central conflict is a simple one - she wants to get Soldier off of Standpipe Hill. Soldier wants to stay. In this first vignette, Victoria wants Soldier to accompany her to her mother's funeral. He's insistent on staying, and so Victoria must leave without him.

In the second vignette, deGannes returns but this time as a uniformed police officer named Vicky. Again, she's familiar with Soldier and wants to get him off the hill. However, the meeting has more tension this time around. There's a sense of urgency from Vicky as her fellow officers pressure her and want Soldier to come down from Standpipe Hill. They fear him being up there for reasons that aren't all too clear. It's an eerily familiar scene in this country where an interaction between law enforcement and a person of color escalates quickly ending in a tragic and violent encounter. This happens after Vicky unsuccessfully does her best to de-escalate.

In the final vignette of the play, Soldier is back on Standpipe Hill but this time joined by a character known as Vee. Vee is clearly of a different era, and she wears the "stiff dress" to prove it. This is where the pieces begin to click for the audience, and we're finally coming full circle to tie up what has been a somewhat nebulous plot to this point. Vee is unique in that she is the first character we've met that seems to belong in the same era as Soldier. His uniform belongs more on the set of this year's Oscar-buzz film, All Quiet on the Western Front, than within a modern play. We know he's not of our time, but we're not sure why. Vee helps solve this puzzle, but you'll have to make your way to the Kogod Cradle to find out why.

THE HIGH GROUND is a unique story that keeps the audience engaged although sometimes it's more because we're simply trying to figure out where the pieces fit together than anything else. It's a bit difficult to catch up to what exactly you are watching for much of the first two vignettes, but the dust settles quite nicely by the third vignette. Brannon and deGannes seem to follow this pattern too as they hit their stride a little past the halfway point of the evening. Their most impactful performances align with the play's - it's when we're treated to a complete stripping away of the costumes, and the actors finish the play as real people adorned in simple black clothing. It's the real moment we've been craving from both playwright and actor, and it leaves an undeniably strong impact on the audience. It takes a while to get to this point, so audiences would be wise to have patience to enjoy the payoff. After all, the play's sum is most certainly stronger than its individual parts.

When selecting a season, it's good practice for a theatre's leadership to scrutinize every title, author, and piece they want to showcase on their stage. But, they should start with two simple questions - why this play? Why now?

Fortunately for Arena Stage, THE HIGH GROUND nails both questions as it's quite obvious why this play and why now. Is it so far-fetched to imagine a world where a Black community is devastated by acts of violence by those who view them as a threat? Is it so far-fetched to watch a person of color threatened into an escalated situation with police? The answers are obvious as we've watched these exact scenes play out over and over again in this country. As Dramaturg Otis Ramsey-Zoe points out in the program notes, "Here. Here, again. Here, again."

We can still imagine a place like what happened in Tulsa in 1921 and in the decades since. It's not the distant past, but our present. And it's happened again and again throughout our history. Much like the conflict facing Soldier and The Woman in Black at the play's end, we could make a statement. We could knock down this tower atop Standpipe Hill. We could wheel on a cannon, aim it straight for the tower, and blow it all up. But, as Soldier says, someone would come along and build it back up again. It's a two-sided metaphor that's an excellent and lasting statement at the core of the play. On one hand, the white establishment of Tulsa would just build the tower back up, and it's hopeless to think otherwise. On the other hand, it's a metaphor for the Black community of Tulsa which was devastated by the actions of 1921 but still persevered and built back up. In this outcome, there is a reason for hope. It's a strange loop in both positive and negative ways for the Black community, and its theme audiences will be mulling over for days after seeing the show.

THE HIGH GROUND is expertly directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian with a simple yet striking set designed by Paige Hathaway. Hathway's set is the sweet spot of scenic design. Serving as both metaphorical and aesthetically pleasing, it's a perfect compliment to the proceedings. Costume Design is by Sarita Fellows with Lighting Design by Sherrice Mojgani. Nathan Leigh's original music and Sound Design is an added layer of excellence to the production. There is a special shout out in order here as THE HIGH GROUND truly would not be complete without the efforts of the "Supplemental Extra" played by Grace O. Gyamfi. It's a creative wrinkle that makes her a crucial part of the action that should be recognized here.

The High Ground runs approximately 75 minutes and will be playing at Arena Stage's Kogod Cradle until April 2, 2023.

Photo Credit: Margot Schulman


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