In 2021, America marked the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, which killed hundreds of innocent people and burnt Black Wall Street to the ground.
Rising from the ashes, a timeless love story emerges in the new play “The High Ground,” which kicked off last week and runs through April 2 at Arena Stage in Southwest D.C.
“It’s about what happens when someone gets stuck in a loop of historical violence, focusing on that history as opposed to being able to process it,” Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian told WTOP. “It’s also a romance, it’s a love story between two characters who were there in 1921 and, in a way, find each other again now in 2023.”
The two romantic leads are a World War I veteran named Soldier (Phillip James Brannon), whose spirit has magically stood on Tulsa’s Standpipe Hill for 100 years, and his wife Victoria (Nehassaiu deGannes), who also appears as Vicky, Vee and The Woman in Black.
“He’s been standing on this hill for 100 years trying to prevent this tragedy,” Sandberg-Zakian said. “He died in 1921 trying to prevent it and he’s been fighting ever since against other types of violence against the Black community in Tulsa, including gentrification, redlining and other kinds of violence both to the neighborhood and to the Black citizens.”
Written by Nathan Alan Davis, the lean play covers tons of ground in just 70 minutes, magically bending time in present day to tackle a century’s worth of past heartache.
“There is some time travel and there are some leaps of theatricality in terms of what’s possible on stage and in a play that maybe isn’t exactly possible in real life,” Sandberg-Zakian said. “How do we travel through storytelling and through theater? How does theater let us as someone in 2023 be part of something that happened in 1921?”
In the end, Arena Stage hopes to entertain folks with Valentine’s Day romance, while enlightening them for Black History Month with events not taught enough in schools.
“There are so many parts of our history that been untold,” Sandberg-Zakian said. “It was called Black Wall Street, there were giant mansions, people wearing furs, playing opera records, playing pianos, thriving businesses. … It links to the love story: what kind of love and relationships existed in the context of that thriving, beautiful Black Wall Street?”