A playwright grapples with the legacy of the Tulsa Race Massacre


When Arena Stage commissioned playwright Nathan Alan Davis to write a new work about the Tulsa Race Massacre, the author of “Nat Turner in Jerusalem” traveled to the Oklahoma city and took a perch atop Standpipe Hill in search of inspiration.

The site is marked with a memorial remembering the 1921 event, in which a White mob attacked the city’s Greenwood District, killing dozens — if not hundreds — of Black residents and crippling a prosperous neighborhood that had earned the moniker “Black Wall Street.” From that spot, Davis recalls, he could see all of Tulsa, including Greenwood and the historic structures that bore witness to the tragedy, as well as a modern downtown erected in the aftermath of violence.

“You’re there surrounded by all of this history and thinking about what’s there now, what was there before,” Davis says. “It was kind of a strange, meditative experience being up there, and I also felt weirdly exposed standing up there. But it seems pretty clear to me that it was something I was able to root myself in, in terms of location and a point of connection for the story.”

That’s how Davis landed on the setting for “The High Ground,” his world-premiere play running through April 2 at Arena Stage. The time-bending meditation on love and loss focuses on a Black man in an Army uniform (played by Phillip James Brannon), still seething about the Tulsa massacre on modern-day Standpipe Hill, and the various women (all played by Nehassaiu deGannes) he encounters there.

In a phone interview, Davis discussed the pull of history, the increasing awareness of the massacre and the play’s unconventional storytelling structure.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Q: Let’s begin with the origins of “The High Ground.” How did you come up with the idea for this play?

A: In 2016 or so, I was offered a commission from Arena Stage to be part of the Power Plays initiative, and I had a conversation with [artistic director] Molly Smith. I told her that I was thinking about Tulsa and the race massacre that happened in 1921, and I was thinking about it because I had only recently learned about it. I was disturbed by the fact that I had not been explicitly taught about it, in school or anywhere else. I told Molly this: “I don’t know how I’d ever write a play about this, but it’s what’s on my mind.” So she wanted me to just follow that impulse.

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Q: What was it about Tulsa that made you interested in unpacking it onstage?

A: What struck me was a sort of symbolic meaning. Of course, there’s the literal death and destruction, which you don’t ever want to overlook. But there’s also a really terrible symbolic meaning to the idea that when a Black community fully buys into the American Dream, and is self-sustaining and accumulates wealth and exhibits these signs of prosperity, that it’s then destroyed. So at the heart of it, it raises a question about how we can continue to buy into the American Dream without addressing an episode like this.

Q: Awareness of the Tulsa massacre has risen since you started working on this play, particularly when it came to commemorating the 100-year anniversary in 2021. As you researched it, how did it feel to see more and more people learn about the subject?

A: It made sense to me that it was being talked about more publicly. I know I wasn’t the only person that was thinking about Tulsa and researching it and learning about it for the first time. It is true that the massacre has not been widely taught in history classes, history books, public education, etc., but it has been talked about. I think given the social and political discourse that’s present in America and in the world right now, it seems inevitable that this type of thing would be unearthed. So I guess I feel encouraged that there’s more out in the open than perhaps there was seven years ago.

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Q: The play is a two-hander that, while set in the modern day, has a nebulous sense of time and space. Did you ever consider a more traditional approach?

A: There was a time when the play had a much larger cast and it had a more traditional family drama type of plot. I ended up moving away from that direction because I was really trying to, I think, explore the way that this history exists within us. I thought that having an approach that was more focused on the existential problems that I was facing with the subject would allow me to explore it more deeply.

Q: Why did you want to play with time, specifically, as a plot device?

A: That speaks to the way that we as human beings move through the world, the way that we think, we operate. We think about the past, we think about the future, we think about the present — all these things are part of our understanding of the world and how we got here and why we’re here.

Q: Ultimately, what conversations do you hope “The High Ground” sparks?

A: I think my job as the playwright, really — and what I’m working on at this moment [while tweaking the script during previews] — is to keep them interested and entertained and drawn into the work. I’m very curious as to what people will talk about, what discussions the play does bring up, but I don’t have any interest in trying to define it for them. But I hope that it touches people on a personal level and also on an intellectual level and on a historical level.

Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300. arenastage.org.

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