“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This often-cited William Faulkner quote is brought to life in The High Ground, Arena Stage’s current production in the theater’s Kogod Cradle. The emblematic play by Nathan Alan Davis, currently in its world premiere at Arena connects America’s fraught racial past – here illustrated by the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 – with its present.
In The High Ground, a character known only as Soldier – played by Phillip James Brannon – maintains a present-day vigil on Tulsa’s Standpipe Hill beneath a tower bearing the logo of Oklahoma State University (OSU), even though, as is soon made clear, he himself was a victim of the 1921 massacre. He is a living ghost, a piece of personified history, a reminder never to forget. His presence ties the Jim Crow past to America’s current racial discord, revealing that under the surface, less has changed than we like to think.
Soldier, who navigates an array of romances – all played by actor Nehassaiu deGannes – often angrily recounts events of a century past, but is also aware of what has transpired since then in Black America. His verbal indictments touch on present-day assaults on communities of color, such as gentrification (as symbolized by the OSU tower), urban highways and police violence. The most intense segment involves deGannes as a police officer trying to talk Soldier into abandoning his watch – an ultimately futile effort as the confrontation, in the manner of Greek tragedy, inevitably escalates in a too-familiar way.
As theater, The High Ground grabs your attention. As social commentary, it causes you to leave the theater thinking about how the past resonates in the present and how far we have yet to go in achieving racial justice.
The High Ground will run until April 2.