Metro Weekly

‘Tempestuous Elements’ Educates While Paying Tribute (Review)

Led by a fierce Gina Daniels, Arena's "Tempestuous Elements" spotlights the history of a pioneering Black feminist educator.

Tempestuous Elements -- Photo: Teresa Castracane
Tempestuous Elements — Photo: Teresa Castracane

A true trailblazer in post-Reconstruction America, Anna Julia Cooper wanted her students at D.C.’s historic M Street School, a prep school for Black youth, to dream bigger for themselves than prior generations could ever have fathomed.

As depicted in Kia Corthron’s Tempestuous Elements at Arena Stage, Anna Cooper, principal at M Street, fought to teach Black students a classical curriculum at a time when revered educators like Booker T. Washington advocated instead for learning a trade. While Washington preached uplift through industry, Cooper, like her contemporary W.E.B. DuBois, espoused the ideal of uplifting the race through education and civic engagement.

Portrayed with passion by Gina Daniels, Cooper stands firmly on those principles against all sorts of opposition throughout Corthron’s enlightening, if stilted, narrative. She also leads with wisdom and compassion, guiding both her students and faculty to see her vision of progress.

Psalmayene 24’s world-premiere production relays a handsomely-produced vision of turn-of-the-20th-century Black intelligentsia at odds over the path to the promised land.

Performed in the round on the Fichandler Stage, and set primarily in the salons and parlors of prominent African-Americans of the period, the show warmly evokes Cooper’s real-life circle in Washington, D.C., bourgeois Black folks alight with ideas and culture.

Visually, the era is best represented in LeVonne Lindsay’s sumptuous costumes and the convincing hair and wig design by LaShawn Melton. Set designer Tony Cisek keeps the scenery exceedingly simple, save for the storm of chalkboards suspended high above the parquet floor, and covered in math, science, literature, and geography lessons.

Performers dressed in character, or garbed to suggest the ancestors, move the furniture and props on and offstage. Essaying choreography by Tony Thomas, these souls and spirits dance across the parquet like chess pieces come to life. We can understand that eons of sacrifice and perseverance that came before have allowed Anna Cooper and her friends to freely sit in their finest frocks and millinery strategizing as the Colored Women’s League.

Still, much of the interstitial movement looks busy and disconnected, juxtaposed against the play’s lengthy, static scenes of debate and discourse. The story — concerning Cooper’s ideological clashes with white school board head Hughes (Paul Morella), with rival teacher Minerva (Yetunde Felix-Ukwu), with League member Mary (Lolita Marie), and with various promoters of Booker T. Washington’s learn-a-trade philosophy — engages, even as Corthron’s script sometimes labors through stiffly declarative dialogue.

Tempestuous Elements -- Photo: Teresa Castracane
Tempestuous Elements — Photo: Teresa Castracane

The challenge of imparting pertinent biographical information about Cooper and her fellow notables is sorely unmet by just having characters recite their resumés by way of introduction. Or, more often, characters politely nod as someone else recites on their behalf, and for the benefit of the audience.

Most of us could stand to be more educated on the lives and accomplishments of Cooper and DuBois, and activists like Colored Women’s League president Helen Appo Cook or League member Charlotte Forten Grimké, but, ideally, lessons would be delivered in more dramatic, less didactic terms. Fortunately, the cast — Daniels, first and foremost among them — largely overcomes that weakness with robust performances.

Marie is fabulous in multiple roles, especially as Mary Church Terrell, a member of the League who also taught Latin at the M Street School. Kindly opposing Cooper, Mary Terrell is working toward the same purposes as Anna, but espousing different methods. Likewise portraying multiple roles, including M Street instructor John Love, who opposes Cooper’s methods of dealing with an altogether different matter, Kevin E. Thorne II also does compelling work.

The play depicts the scandal surrounding Cooper’s relationship with John, an element of hot sauce mixed into the otherwise starchy, cerebral stew.

Tempestuous Elements -- Photo: Teresa Castracane
Tempestuous Elements — Photo: Teresa Castracane

John Love is one of two young people who were in need, a boy and a girl, whom Cooper took in and raised to adulthood. She considers Lula (Renea S. Brown) and John to be her foster children, and insists she’d be loath to even countenance a romantic relationship with her former charge, now in his thirties. His feelings for Cooper, however, are more complicated.

Though John is afforded only one scene really to express his feelings, Thorne makes the most of it. Of course, leading lady Daniels makes the most of her portrayal as a means of expressing the dignity of teachers everywhere, and this educator and activist in particular. Her contained, yet fiery turn as Cooper illustrates the woman’s staunch determination to lay a foundation for a nation of Black students. Yet, she carries herself humbly.

Daughter of a former slave, Cooper wonders aloud if she’s become an elitist, not grounded enough in her duties of service. She’s an undeniable force, still uncertain of her power, though never faltering in her purpose. One of her fellow educators reminds her, and us, that history forgets about the teachers. This play leaves the certain impression she wouldn’t mind as long as the teachings weren’t forgotten.

Tempestuous Elements (★★★☆☆) runs until March 17 at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW. Tickets are $41 to $95. Call 202-488-3300, or visit

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