By Sheila Wickouski
Arena Stage presents a world premiere of award-winning playwright Nathan Alan Davis’ The High Ground, a visceral story in which a Black man in Army uniform stands on Tulsa’s Standpipe Hill reflecting on the destruction and desecration of Tulsa’s Greenwood District, violence that became known as the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, more than 100 years after the events.
After a delay due to the pandemic, the evocative story comes to the Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage beginning February 10 to offer hope to communities to hold on to legacies of love and connection.
The High Ground is the recipient of a 2023 National Endowment for the Arts grant and received the prestigious Edgerton Foundation New Play Award in 2022.
Ahead of opening night, The Southwester shared questions with Davis’ longtime collaborator and the show’s director, Megan Sandberg-Zakian. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Southwester: As a director, how do you research plays with such a heavy and historic subject matter?
Megan Sandberg-Zakian: For this play, it takes place now, in 2023, and Nathan had done a lot of research and has had a lot of dramaturgy and thinking about the history. I did do some research of course just to familiarize myself with the event, the voices, the soberness and the magnitude of the loss in the massacre of 1921.
I didn’t saturate myself with research with the way I did for other shows and I think a lot of the reason for that is that I was interested in staying, to some extent, in the shoes of the audience member who might not know as much about the history and making sure that the play still reaches us, that it’s still able to both open up our desire to understand and learn more about the events in Tulsa 1921 and also to – regardless of how much we know about those events – really ask us to wrestle with and resonate with the big questions the play is grappling with, which I think are around: “When our legacies include these traumatic histories, how do we not get stuck in a loop of experiencing and being devastated by that trauma, especially when healing isn’t able to happen because traumas are continued to be visited on the same community and how do we choose a legacy of love over a legacy of trauma?”
SW: How do you see The High Ground in relation to other plays you’ve directed alongside Nathan Alan Davis, like Nat Turner in Jerusalem and Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea? Would you say your directing approach is similar or different? Any comments on the importance of theater to present history?
MSZ: My directing approach is very different for every play, partially because I’m different with every play and the moment is different. In 2016, we were producing Nat Turner in Jerusalem on the eve of the 2016 election and it was a very particular moment to be doing a play about how we ended up in this incredibly divided place that we’ve ended up in as a nation which is a lot of what that play was about. For me, The High Ground, one of the ways that it deeply resonates for me is the question of “how do you choose a legacy of love and allowing it to lead you over a legacy of trauma?” The play is about what happens when you get stuck in the loop of historical trauma and you’re unable to process it but it’s also a romance and it’s a love story so partially it’s asking “what kind of telling of this traumatic history could get us unstuck from the trauma loop, and is it possible to hold on to these legacies of love and connection in spite of or in addition to the legacies of trauma and violence?”
SW: Arena Stage is located where history and literature have often converged—where history is literally under one’s feet. A plaque on Pearl Street states that here on April 15, 1848, the abolitionist schooner, The Pearl, with 77 Black people seeking freedom, was returned to Washington harbor. The 1848 event inspired the writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. Any comments on the significance of bringing this story about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 to Arena Stage/Southwest Washington DC?
MSZ: A lot of The High Ground, while it deals with the aftermath dated a century later of the massacre, what it’s really dealing with is gentrification in Tulsa, and there’s a line in the play where one of the characters talks about how the Greenwood District was destroyed by fire in 1921 but it was rebuilt and ultimately the community died not by fire, but by drought. By being drained of resources and by “urban renewal” by having a highway built in the middle of it which is what happened in Southwest DC as well.
Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith has said many times in relation to this play that one of the reasons she’s really proud to be producing it is that Arena only exists in Southwest because Southwest was the site of one of the worst “urban renewals” in this country. It was home to a thriving Black community that was dispersed around the region and beyond.
My family is from here, as well as my wife’s family. My wife grew up on North Capitol Street and she and her family have witnessed the gentrification of this city and the erasure of Black communities really directly, and I think The High Ground almost sometimes feels like it’s about DC because it’s grappling with what it means to resist when the physical evidence of your community has been erased. There has been what one of the character’s called “a sort of plastic surgery on the earth, on the land, on the city” to reinscribe its history, so it takes away not only the telling of the difficult parts of its history like the massacre, but it’s also erasing and denying the incredibly powerful and beautiful parts of the history like the wealth, vibrance and deep roots of the community.
So, this play is actually perfect for Southwest, and I can’t imagine a better place for it to be than at Arena, honestly. It’s really been beautifully supported by the team at Arena, it was commissioned by Arena and Molly Smith and her team have just been incredibly supportive of the play and all of its iterations. It’s been rewritten many, many times and each time I feel like it actually gets more resonant and it’s asking a question about how all of us can hold in this tension of not forgetting, not ignoring, not denying, that we have done absolutely terrible, tragic things to each other and that the power of love and connection is more powerful than anything else if we can fight for it.