Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

The High Ground
Arena Stage
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Also see Susan's recent review of Kinky Boots

Nehassaiu deGannes and Phillip James Brannon
Photo by Margot Schulman
The High Ground, Nathan Alan Davis' play receiving its world premiere in the Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle at Washington's Arena Stage, is an admirable if not completely successful attempt to distill an overpowering story into the experiences of two individuals. It could best be described as a meditation on traumatic events, what stays the same in the aftermath and what must change.

On the one hand, the playwright's words succeed in dramatizing the impact of the (long-ignored) Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, when a white mob destroyed the Oklahoma city's prosperous Black neighborhood of Greenwood and killed some 300 people over an 18-hour period. On the other, it sets the two characters in their own isolated space and time, which distances the audience from their interaction rather than making it seem timeless.

Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian takes a deeply empathetic approach with the two characters, who meet in present-day Tulsa on Standpipe Hill above the site where, a century earlier, hundreds were mowed down and their homes ransacked and burned. Soldier (Phillip James Brannon, stalwart and determined) was one of many Black World War I veterans who fought against the odds in Tulsa to defend themselves and those they loved; he's still there, waiting for the wife he believes will return to him. His language is often florid: he suggests that the "OSU" (Oklahoma State University-Tulsa) referenced in a sign on the hill actually refers to what he calls the "Ontological [referring to the nature of being] Serial Destruction" that occurred on and near the site.

An assertive young woman (Nehassaiu deGannes, warm and yearning) tries repeatedly over the 70-minute run time to form a connection with the unnamed Soldier, sharing her own life experiences but finding only frustration. He is trapped by his own perspective, unable to see beyond what he expects to find.

Paige Hathaway's scenic design looks simple–a tower now stands on the top of the hill; grass and small clumps of weeds grow on the tiered levels of ground–but it offers a few surprises, enhanced by Sherrice Mojgani's warm, welcoming lighting design and Nathan Leigh's original music and sound design. Sarita Fellows has created costumes that subtly reinforce the sense that these two people may be meeting in a real space, but one that is somehow set apart and unable to admit anyone besides them.

The High Ground runs through April 2, 2023, at Arena Stage, Mead Center for American Theater, Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle, 1101 6th St. SW, Washington DC. For tickets and information, please call 202-488-3300 or visit

By Nathan Alan Davis
Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian

Soldier: Phillip James Brannon
Victoria/Vicky/Vee/The Woman in Black: Nehassaiu deGannes
Voice of Dispatcher: Rachel Felstein
Voice of Cop: Peter Boyer
Male Understudy: DeJuan Christopher
Female Understudy: DeShawn White
Supplemental Extra: Grace O. Gyamfi