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In Its World Premiere, ‘Tempestuous Elements’ Shines Brightly at Arena Stage

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Whether Psalmayene 24 is directing or writing, I know it’s a production I want to see. The pairing of “Psalm” as director of this world premiere with playwright Kia Corthron promised to be an intriguing collaboration. The story centers around teacher and school principal Anna Julia Cooper (the amazing Gina Daniels), a woman for whom the classics – Greek and Latin – and advanced mathematics were crucial to her curriculum.

Gina Daniels for Tempestuous Elements at Arena Stage. Photo by Tony Powell.

Anna knew that without her students mastering those subjects, they’d have no chance of acceptance at Harvard or her alma mater, Oberlin College, as opposed to traditional HBCU colleges like Tuskegee Institute headed by Booker T. Washington whose influence at the White House afforded him the ear of the President.

Renea S. Brown and Kevin E. Thorne II in Tempestuous Elements. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Set against a Victorian backdrop, when married women were not allowed to be teachers, the play unfolds to reveal Anna and her fellow female teachers living on campus. For the most part, they are all supportive of each other, but we see how professional jealousy can keep the glass ceiling firmly in place.

Gina Daniels and Brittney Dubose in Tempestuous Elements. Photo by Kian McKellar.

Anna teaches at M Street School, a private Washington, DC school for Black high school students. After a 20-year tenure, she’s about to get the shaft. It’s insider politics at their most insidious. Throughout the play, historical references, societal mores, and conflicts within the Black school system work against her high ideals. Although she upholds the highest scholastic standards, she is undermined by her co-worker Minerva Jeffries, who is far more concerned with students’ punctuality than their academic abilities.

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

Another teacher, Mary Church Terrell, whose husband secures a seat on the Board of Education, plans Anna’s undoing. When Anna’s students begin to exceed the accomplishments of their White counterparts, she is accused of being “elitist,” overstepping her bounds as a female teacher and, in the lowest blow of all, having an affair with her foster son, John.

Jasmine Joy in Tempestuous Elements. Photo by Teresa Castracane

The play is a history lesson in the competing ideas as to how to educate Black students, including the many restrictions placed upon administrators to not “overstep” White imposed boundaries. Invoked are the names of W. E. B. Dubois and Frederick Douglas, whose styles of educating Blacks differed substantially. Set a mere two generations after slavery, it touches on the Colored Women’s League, the destruction of Reconstruction, suffragettes, human dignity, and the need to educate a new generation of Black students.

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

I can’t say enough about the caliber of this cast, their clear passion for their roles in presenting this deeply affecting story, and the high level of production values in every aspect from costumes to choreography, music to set design. It’s as smooth as silk.

And speaking of silk, I learned something new. To dress the men and women of the South in bespoke finery, enslaved people learned to produce silk by breeding silkworms and weaving the silk from their cocoons on looms. Who knew?

With Kelly Renee Armstrong as Abigail/Lotte; Joel Ashur as Mr. Turner/Francis/Atwood/Charles; Ro Boddie as Hiram/W.E.B. Dubois/Rep. Jonathan Del Palmer as White on opening night; Renea S. Brown as Ernestine/Lula/Mrs. Cook/Alumni Association President; Brittney Dubose as Lucretia/Annie; Yetunde Felix-Ukwu as Minerva/Miss Patterson; Jasmine Joy as Ruth/Ivy/Josephine/Principals’ Association Representative; Lolita Marie as Hannah/Mary/Nellie; Paul Morella as Hughes; Kevin E. Thorne II as Lawrence/Silas/John/Dr. Purvis/Dance Captain. Female Understudies – Monique Paige and Renee Elizabeth Wilson.

Associate Director and Choreographer, Tony Thomas; Set Designer, Tony Cisek; Costume Designer, LeVonne Lindsay; Lighting Designer, William K. D’Eugenio; Original Music and Sound Design by Lindsay Jones; Dramaturg, Otis Ramsey-Zöe; Hair and Wig Designer, LaShawn Melton; Dialect and Vocal Coach, Lisa Nathans.

Highly recommended.

Through March 17 on the Fichandler Stage at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information, call the box office at 202 554-9066 or visit

Jordan Wright

Jordan Wright is a noted publisher and writer focused on food, spirits, travel, theatre and lifestyles.  Her writing can also be found on her personal website

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