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A Poignant, Gritty and Powerful New Play at Arena Stage

A Poignant, Gritty and Powerful New Play at Arena Stage

The High Ground
Arena Stage
Jordan Wright
February 24, 2023
Special to The Zebra

Nehassaiu deGannes (Victoria/Vicky/Vee/The Woman in Black) and Phillip James Brannon (Soldier) (Photo/Margot Schulman)

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. At 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. Known as the single worst incident of racial violence in American history, in two days it caused the destruction of what was known as Black Wall Street, saw 300 innocent demonstrators shot dead, burned hospitals, schools and churches, looted houses and displaced up to 10,000 Black Americans from their community of Greenwood. Falsely called a riot by local policemen who brought in heavy armor, machine guns and helicopters, the event gripped the entire nation for two days. When the dust cleared, it turned into a land grab for local Whites.

Nehassaiu deGannes and Phillip James Brannon (Photo/Margot Schulman)

Davis tells this vivid story through a young Black man (Phillip James Brannon) who was shot and killed during the onslaught and returns 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 silken white 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.

Nehassaiu deGannes and Phillip James Brannon (Photo/Margot Schulman)

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.

Highly recommended.

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 or call the box office at 202 488-3300.

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