Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Tempestuous Elements
Arena Stage
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Also see Susan's recent reviews of Where We Belong and Lend Me a Soprano

Gina Daniels and Lolita Marie
Photo by Teresa Castracane
Anna Julia Cooper was a leader in education for the Black youth of Washington, D.C. in the early 1900s. Educated in math, science, and classical literature, she became a teacher and principal of the city's M Street High School, the first in the District of Columbia to offer a classical academic education to students of color (vocational classes were offered at a different school). For all her achievements, she is little remembered today.

Washington's Arena Stage aims to remedy that situation with the world premiere production of Tempestuous Elements, but too often the wordiness of Kia Corthron's script and an ensemble of actors too often doubling in indistinguishable roles act against the importance of the subject. Rather than being a comprehensive view of an eventful life, it's often confusing to keep track of the players.

Director Psalmayene 24 has a vivid sense of the theatrical, opening the play with actors carrying flying banners as they race around the stage. Tony Cisek's flexible scenic design uses geometric designs as its theme, a parquet floor with illuminated lines (lighting design by William K. D'Eugenio) that form larger triangles and rectangles. The most striking element is a series of suspended glass panels representing blackboards in M Street School classes: classical Latin poetry, trigonometry, principles of economics, and more.

Gina Daniels offers a majestic presence as Cooper, a woman born into slavery who sees Black youth, especially young women, facing the "tempestuous elements" of a shifting society. The play considers the social and political advances achieved through Reconstruction, until it was shut down by Congress, and the encroaching chill of Jim Crow. Another issue is the conflict between Cooper's belief in Black and white students attending the same universities and Booker T. Washington's focus on training young people as, in her words, "farmers and mechanics."

Among the thematic clutter, a few performers stand out. Ro Boddie convinces in three widely divergent roles; Yetunde Felix-Ukwu dominates her scenes as a strict teacher who thinks Cooper is too lenient; Kevin E. Thorne II gets a breakout moment as John Love, Cooper's foster son and close friend; and Paul Morella plays school official Hughes with an understated threat of power.

LeVonne Lindsay's costume design uses sumptuous fabrics and character-defining details (an austere dress silhouette, vivid colors compared with subdued stripes) to help define the characters, although many of the roles are brief and have a limited impact on the story as a whole.

Tempestuous Elements runs through March 17, 2024, at Arena Stage, Fichandler Stage, Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th St. SW, Washington DC. For tickets and information, please call 202-488-3300 or visit

By Kia Corthron
Directed by Psalmayene 24

Abigail/Lottie: Kelly Renee Armstrong
Mr. Turner/Francis/Atwood/Charles: Joel Ashur
Hiram/W.E.B. Du Bois/Rep. White: Ro Boddie
Ernestine/Lula/Mrs. Cook/Alumni Association President: Renea S. Brown
Anna: Gina Daniels
Lucretia/Annie: Brittney Dubose
Minerva/Miss Patterson: Yetunde Felix-Ukwu
Ruth/Ivy/Josephine/Principals' Association Representative: Jasmine Joy
Hannah/Mary/Nellie: Lolita Marie
Hughes: Paul Morella
Lawrence/Silas/John/Dr. Purvis/Dance Captain: Kevin E. Thorne II