An extraordinary woman in the eye of the storm in ‘Tempestuous Elements’ at Arena Stage

Playwright Kia Corthron chronicles the tumultuous tenure of educational pioneer Anna Julia Cooper as principal of DC’s historic M Street School.

Arena Stage and its founding artistic director Zelda Fichandler hold a special place in the histories of the American theater and Washington, DC, as the first integrated theater in the city and an early promoter of the regional theater movement. So it’s fitting that Arena Stage has produced the world premiere of Kia Corthron’s Tempestuous Elements, a hometown play about another game-changing woman and educational pioneer, Dr. Anna Julia Cooper. Seizing this opportunity to bring an often overlooked figure to the forefront, Corthron chronicles Cooper’s tumultuous tenure as principal of DC’s historic M Street School at the turn of the 20th century.

Born in North Carolina in the final years of slavery, Cooper embraced opportunities for education throughout her long life, securing two degrees from Oberlin College and a doctoral degree from the Sorbonne. Her authorship of A Voice from the South: By a Black Woman of the South, regarded as one of the first major texts on Black feminism, earned her the sobriquet “The Mother of Black Feminism.” A polymath and pioneer in education, she advocated for Black students to receive the same classical curriculum that was standard in white educational institutions. Closely aligned with W.E.B. Du Bois, Cooper’s educational advocacy was often at odds with Tuskegee Institute leader Booker T. Washington, who promoted vocational education in agriculture and industry.

Gina Daniels as Anna Julia Cooper in ‘Tempestuous Elements.’ Photo by Kian McKellar.

Tempestuous Elements homes in on Cooper’s time as principal of the M Street School, a precursor to DC’s Dunbar High School. Facing mounting pressure from the school board to lower her educational standards and dilute the classical curriculum, Cooper stands strong against opposing forces. But soon, her adversaries embrace rumors about her personal life and capitalize on issues of student conduct to justify her dismissal. While Cooper is a formidable contender, Washington’s cronyism and insidious racism and misogyny prove too strong.

In bringing Cooper to life and asserting her importance in history, Corthron relies on continuously cataloging Cooper’s long list of professional accomplishments, often unnaturally, in dialogue. Rather than show, she too often tells, and there’s the rub: Tempestuous Elements leaves no room for doubt that Cooper was an extraordinary woman. And that is, simply, because she was an extraordinary woman. But the case for her exceptionalism is made most convincingly not in adamant credentialing but in the tender treatment of her students, the firm conviction of her beliefs, and the unmistakable respect for her position and purpose. The play is at its best when Cooper is speaking casually with students and peers, allowing their respective vulnerabilities to shine through. But in the moments when Corthron’s eager admiration pushes this story to idolatry, the glass-breaking edges of Cooper’s extraordinary achievements are somehow smoothed.

Corthron’s acumen as a playwright is more evident in the development of ancillary characters, namely M Street School students and teachers. It seems that Corthron, perhaps with less pressure to “do justice” to such characters, writes them with abandon. Even with limited, albeit compelling backstories, these distinct supporting characters blossom before our eyes. They exemplify the fruit of Cooper’s labor, the forces that stand against her, and the circumstances in which she has to navigate. But they are not stock characters; they are real people, performed with aplomb by a very strong supporting ensemble. Leading the group are standout performances by Lolita Marie (as Hannah, Mary, and Nellie), Brittney Dubose (as Lucretia and Annie), and Ro Boddie (as Hiram, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Rep. White).

But in her commitment to reflecting Cooper’s own writing and gravitas in the text of the play, Corthron stiffens the teacher to such linguistic rigidity and recited fact-sharing that Cooper often sounds out of step with those in her world. This is most evident in the first act of the play, where the balance of exposition and driving action tilts heavily toward the former. Eventually, Cooper is given room to become more vulnerable, allowing for refreshing, organic dialogue, mostly in the second act.

Still, as Cooper, Gina Daniels gives a weighty, disciplined performance. She skillfully navigates long strings of turn-of-the-century tongue twisters, establishing a steady rhythm that underscores the character’s talent. She is fully committed to the story, listening intently and responding accordingly. Arena’s four-sided Fichandler Stage leaves actors exposed in a way proscenium spaces do not; turning away from the audience is simply impossible, presenting a challenge to any actor, but especially one who is onstage for the vast majority of a nearly three-hour show. Fortunately, Daniels is an actor who knows how to maneuver such a space, and she is engaged at all times without losing focus or stamina.

TOP: Gina Daniels, Brittney Dubose, Ro Boddie, Joel Ashur, and Jasmine Joy in ‘Tempestuous Elements.’ Photo by Kian McKellar. ABOVE LEFT: Gina Daniels and Lolita Marie in ‘Tempestuous Elements.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane. ABOVE RIGHT: Gina Daniels and Brittney Dubose in ‘Tempestuous Elements.’ Photo by Kian McKellar.

Under the careful direction of Psalmayene 24, the production is wonderfully cohesive. Except for sound designer Lindsay Jones’ stormy soundscape, nearly all the technical elements offer various shades of rich pinks and purples: mauve, periwinkle, and mulberry. That latter shade corresponds to the plant whose leaves Cooper’s mother would feed to the silkworms she cultivated during and after enslavement. Cooper’s mother enrolled her in school immediately following Emancipation, setting her on a path of educational achievement. Reflecting a motherly gift of purple silk that Cooper carries with her, Psalmayene 24 has a young Cooper and her mother running about the stage waving large, lovely swaths of fabric at various times throughout the show.

Set designer Tony Cisek has hung chalkboard-inspired plexiglass panels overhead, illustrating the “classical curriculum” of the M Street School, from the Greek alphabet to mathematical equations. His functional purplish set pieces glide easily across the geometric parquet floor, embedded with glowing implements that complement lighting designer William K. D’Eugenio’s overhead work. And LeVonne Lindsay’s gorgeous early 20th-century costumes add delectable flourishes with patterns and fabrics as diverse as those aforementioned shades of pinks and purples. Rounding out her offerings are a parade of beautiful hats that seem to make the remarkable women in Corthron’s play stand even taller.

Though the elements of Cooper’s predicament were tempestuous, those of Corthron’s play and Psalmayene 24’s production will prove quite compelling to DC audiences. In the movement to bring greater recognition to oft-overlooked figures in our history, it’s high time that Cooper receives her rightful respect. Fortunately, it has arrived in an honorable production at the hands of individuals who so clearly recognize the importance of Cooper’s contributions. Naturally, Cooper continues to be a teacher for us all.

Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes including a 15-minute intermission

Tempestuous Elements plays through March 17, 2024, on the Fichandler Stage at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St SW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($41–$115 plus fees) may be obtained online, by phone at 202-488-3300, or in person at the Sales Office (Tuesday–Sunday, 12–8 p.m.).

Arena Stage offers savings programs including “pay your age” tickets for those aged 30 and under, student discounts, and “Southwest Nights” for those living and working in the District’s Southwest neighborhood. To learn more, visit

Early Curtain: Sunday, March 3 at 6 p.m.
Southwest Nights: Tuesday, March 5 at 7:30 p.m. and Friday, March 15 at 8 p.m.
Audio-Described Performance: Saturday, March 2 at 2 p.m.
ASL-Interpreted Performance: Saturday, March 16 at 8 p.m.
Mask-Required Performances: Sunday, February 25 at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, March 9 at 8 p.m.; Tuesday, March 12 at 7:30 p.m.; Wednesday, March 13 at 12 p.m.

The program for Tempestuous Elements is online here.

COVID Safety: Arena Stage recommends but does not require that patrons wear facial masks in theaters except in occasional mask-required performances. For up-to-date information, visit

‘It’s time for a celebration of Black women’: Psalmayene 24 on directing ‘Tempestuous Elements’ at Arena (interview by Ravelle Brickman, February 21, 2024)


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