Tempestuous Elements, Fichandler Theatre, Arena Stage, Washington, DC


Gina Daniels as Anna Julia Cooper in Tempestuous Elements at Arena Stage. Photo credit: Kian McKellar.

I can’t remember ever having used the word “elegant” in describing a theatrical production. To make sure I was using the word correctly, I consulted some online resources, where my instincts were confirmed. “Elegant,” to me, includes elements of grace, refinement, dignity, and luxuriousness. My summary of Arena Stage’s current production of Tempestuous Elements is this: it is an elegant production centered on an elegant lead performance by the very talented Gina Daniels, elegantly directed by Psalmayene 24.

Tempestuous Elements, written by Kia Corthron, is the latest in Arena’s “power plays” series, now in its world premiere run. Based on real characters and situations regarding the appropriate role of education in the lives of DC’s African American children around and shortly after the turn of the century (19th to 20th), the play focuses on DC educator Anna Julia Cooper. Post-Reconstruction and following the Plessy v. Ferguson decision preserving “separate but equal” schools, Cooper exerted a great deal of influence.

Cooper, a graduate of North Carolina’s St. Augustine’s College and one of the first Black women to obtain a master’s degree from Oberlin University, is a teacher/principal trained in music, mathematics, and the classics. Her successes include a number of students who have gone on to obtain scholarships to prestigious (White) universities like Harvard. When we meet her, Cooper has become the principal of what was referred to as M Street School.

At the time, however, there was a huge division in the outlook for educating Black students. W. E. B. DuBois, who would found the NAACP in 1909, believed in the kind of classical education for Black students that Cooper favored. At the other end of the spectrum, Booker T. Washington (often referred to in the play simply as “Booker”) had implemented a different model at what was then the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, emphasizing the “practical” arts. Cooper’s supervisor, high school director Percy Hughes, like most White Southerners at the time, followed Washington’s model for educating Black students.

Gina Daniels, Brittney Dubose, Ro Boddie, Joel Ashur, and Jasmine Joy in Tempestuous Elements. Photo credit: Kian McKellar. 

Hughes (and other administrators) were destined to be at odds with Cooper. She had ascended to a position, high school principal, through the “glass ceiling” determined by both her race and gender, wielding uncommon power over the education of DC’s Black children. In addition, as a widow, she had been a married woman at a time when the marriage of female teachers was frowned upon, and shared a house with a single young man, John Love, who had been her foster son. That kind of thing just didn’t “look right” to the powers that be and others, resulting in the kind of gossip that may still be found in teachers’ lounges today. Add resentment from other teachers jealous of her success (also found today), and it seems that Cooper’s days as principal are numbered.

And just how far have we come since then? The credentials of Black women at some of the nation’s most prestigious universities (including the recent attacks on Harvard’s first Black female president) continue to be challenged in ways that their male, mostly White contemporaries are not.

Cooper continued to fight for what she believed and, when she is terminated (or “non-renewed,” as it is called in many educational circles today), she moves onward, taking a position at Missouri’s Lincoln University. After the events described in the play, she would go on to earn a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne at the University of Paris, just the fourth African-American woman to earn a doctoral degree.

As mentioned earlier, Gina Daniels gives an elegant portrayal of Anna Cooper. She is graceful, energetic, determined, demanding, devoted, creative, and sometimes sly, fiercely committed to her students. Although Daniels is physically unimposing, her portrayal of Cooper is regal and resolute, commanding the stage with internal energy and dedication.

Gina Daniels and Lolita Marie in Tempestuous Elements. Photo credit: Teresa Castracane.

The cast is uniformly strong. It is difficult to single out individuals, in part because most play multiple roles, including students. Ro Boddie, playing a student who feels unsuited to classical education, is sincere and sympathetic, but later seems to enjoy himself immensely as NC congressman White, hotheaded and irrepressible as he defends Cooper. Yetunde Felix-Ukwu is effective as Minerva, a nemesis to Cooper who feigns sympathy at Cooper’s fall but also learns that her position in what we today would consider the “central office” has limited power. Lolita Marie is another Cooper colleague, a past-and-future Board of Education member who promises not to harm Cooper, but also promises not to help. Kevin E. Thorne II appears in four roles, but is especially memorable as the awkward, lovestruck John Love. And Paul Morella as Hughes transitions nicely from an apparently-sympathetic administrator to one who is ready to put Cooper in “her place.” Other cast members include Kelly Renee Armstrong, Renea S. Brown, Brittney DuBose, and Jasmine Joy. Understudy Jonathan Del Palmer filled in for Joel Ashur during the performance I attended.

Playwright Corthron captures Cooper’s passion and compassion, infusing many of the scenes with subtle humor. She creates character interchanges that are both period-appropriate and recognizable in a contemporary context. Even though the pacing seems right, at two hours and 40 minutes the play seems about 15 minutes too long and could benefit from some judicious editing.  

Director Psalmayene 24 makes excellent use of the expansive Arena Stage, especially with the contributions of Tony Cisek’s flexible set design and William K. D’Eugenio’s lighting design. I assume that associate director and choreographer Tony Thomas is largely responsible for both the expressive, almost balletic movement that punctuates the play and the scene changes, all of which are accomplished with flair and efficiency. LeVonne Lindsay’s costumes, complemented by hair and wigs designed by LaShawn Melton, perfectly capture the times as well as the personalities of the characters. Original music and sound design by Lindsay Jones provide tension, and help set the tone of the play.

Anna Julia Cooper is one of those lost, unsung heroes whose life and work advanced education in the District of Columbia and beyond. Hers is just one story of commitment and courage that should be recognized. I appreciate that her story is being performed in Washington, as it should be, but the play portrays universal themes that should

This elegant performance continues at Arena Stage through March 17.

The cast of Tempestuous Elements. Photo credit: Teresa Castracane.


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