Lifestyle'Tempestuous Elements': D.C. history brought to life

‘Tempestuous Elements’: D.C. history brought to life

Anna Julia Cooper was a dedicated educator who prepared her Black high school students for acceptance to any college. In 1902, she became the M Street High School principal in Northwest Washington, D.C. Cooper’s vision and documentation of what her students accomplished were constantly challenged by Congressional leaders, the school board, and other Black teachers at her school.

This ongoing battle is the subject of “Tempestuous Elements,” a magnificent production at Arena Stage until March 17.

An overview of “Tempestuous Elements” was given by Vanessa Dalpiaz, an artistic development fellow at Arena Stage.

“Tempestuous Elements,” currently running at Arena Stage until March 17, is about the M Street High School in the District and educator Anna Julia Cooper, who in the early 1900s advocated to ensure Black students received the same classical education as white students. (Courtesy of Arena Stage)
“Anna Julia Cooper’s time as principal at M Street was marked by controversy stemming from the wider national conversations occurring over what sort of education should be available to Black Americans,” Dalpiaz said.

Playwright Kia Corthron and director Psalmayene 24 have taken real D.C. history and painstakingly brought it to the stage. 

Corthorn’s dialogues between characters hit hard when we hear how white administrators felt about what Black students should be taught. Negro students are not worthy of the “classical” education that white students were taught.

Fair Access to Education An Emotional Roller Coaster   

This cast is phenomenal. 

There are many emotional dialogues in this play, and most are given by Gina Daniels as Cooper, the dedicated educator and feminist. Daniels moves easily between sternness in the classroom and supportive and understanding time in one-on-one guidance to students. Her effectiveness with her portrayal of Cooper does not feel like acting. When Cooper realizes that some of her teachers and personal friends are not on her side, we feel the hurt of their betrayal. 

Cooper is tolerant when standing her ground with fellow teachers and school board members. She is a persistent advocate for her high-achieving Black students when administrators are dismissive insinuating a fluke in the system. If alive today, we can imagine Cooper saying the same things to legislators today about what children should be allowed to learn in school.

Daniels is only one of two actors in the “Tempestuous Elements” ensemble who does not have multiple roles. 

One of D.C.’s foremost writers, actors, and directors, Psalmayene 24, and associate director/choreographer Tony Thomas, finely manage a rapid rotation of actors in their roles. 

“Tempestuous Elements” is performed on the Arena Stage Fichandler Stage, an open square configuration. In addition to their roles, actors change the set in between scenes as the audience observes as the lights are dimmed. Observing a play in this setting gives the audience a greater appreciation of the intense work of the talented cast and crew. 

Above the stage were many clear plexiglasses that appeared as blackboards with lesson notes. This was truly a message that serious classwork was being done by Cooper’s students.

The play is a must-see to learn about another piece of D.C.’s history of work toward equal justice. 

I am sure “Tempestuous Elements” will be nominated for several awards from the current District theater season.

Ticket information can be obtained from the Arena Stage website at 

Source: Washington Informer

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