Seven years ago, playwright Nathan Alan Davis was horrified he had never learned about a significant and tragic event in American history: the Tulsa Race Massacre, when an estimated 300 African American residents were murdered by white rioters from May 31 to June 1, 1921.
“I knew the term Black Wall Street kind of vaguely and I started looking into that and found out there was this massacre and I had no idea,” Davis said, referencing Tulsa, Oklahoma’s former booming Black business district located in the Greenwood neighborhood, which was ruined in the 1921 tragedy.
“I was very disturbed by the fact I hadn’t been taught about it by any school I went to or anything,” added Davis, a Rockford, Illinois, native, who splits his time between New Jersey and Massachusetts as the chair of Boston University’s MFA Playwriting program.
Having been commissioned by Arena Stage to write a play, Davis tossed around the idea to write about the race massacre. Molly Smith, Arena’s artistic director, loved the proposal.
“[Smith] put a lot of faith in me to figure out how to do it,” he explained.
That faith, a trip to Tulsa and a flippant comment birthed Davis’ play “The High Ground,” which is in its world premiere run at Arena Stage until April 2. “The High Ground” is a captivating tale of two lovers, Soldier and Victoria, who were affected by the Tulsa Race Massacre. The play shows the couple’s fight to hold onto history and pride, while also grappling with the reality that life continues life-ing and time moves on.
“[With] Black Wall Street … there was never any justice. So the massacre happened, and nobody was held responsible, nobody received reparations and right now the extent of what we have is an acknowledgment of the fact that it happened, but I don’t know how you move forward with the idea of ‘OK, it happened,’” the playwright questioned. “There’s a difficulty in figuring out ‘How do we acknowledge the wrongs that have been perpetrated? And how can we do that and keep our identity as a country that stands for freedom?’ So I think that just leaves us being stuck, and I think that’s the situation that we’re in.”
The Inspiration Behind The Story
Davis took a trip to the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Center in Tulsa, a nonprofit organization founded in 2007 that works to build trust and fix the divide caused by the race massacre. There, the playwright learned a lot about Black Wall Street and the massacre, but it was a conversation with employee Jean Neal that cemented the direction of the play.
“She just mentioned off-handedly that she really had a problem with the tower that was on top of Standpipe Hill and that when she would drive in to work it just made her upset,” Davis explained. Neal considered the dark history of arson, murder and targeting of Black bodies, which could all be witnessed atop Standpipe Hill and the role the area played for Greenwood residents as they used the grounds as a way to look out and protect themselves.
After hearing Neal’s hot-take and taking in the place for himself, Davis knew that Standpipe Hill would play a central role to the story.
Admitting that one of the exciting aspects of playwriting is “creating a world for people to step in,” Davis crafts a world that merges past and present on Standpipe Hill and invites the audience into the theatre-making experience.
Crafting the Narrative and Breaking the Fourth Wall
In a beautifully well-executed production, directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, with stellar performances by Phillip James Brannon as Soldier and Nehassaiu deGannes as Victoria, Davis has constructed a fast-moving play that shifts between time periods and reality. Featuring a strong commanding portrayal by Brannon, a passionate performance from deGannes, and a captivating set design by Paige Hathaway that transforms Standpipe Hill into the unofficial third actor on stage, the audience is immediately pulled into the narrative.
Initially, Davis wrote a play set on Standpipe Hill with a much larger cast. However, he felt that the first drafts didn’t do justice to the story he wanted to tell.
“Once I was able to let go of the old I was able to focus on these two people and it just gave more room for the story to breathe,” the playwright explained, allowing for him to add more poetic and creative nuances to the script. “It’s a lot of ideas under it you have to unpack in the production, but it was exciting to me to go into unknown territory and just hold these two people as the center of the story.”
The world Davis creates also acknowledges that the action is taking place on a stage. There are moments where actors ask for props and stagehands make regular cameos.
“I think it just allows there to be some room for the audience to enter an imaginative space. It allows for some levity in a story that’s very heavy, which I think is important. It allows us to think about the idea of authenticity, what’s real and not real,” he said.
For tickets and more information, go to www.arenastage.org/highground.