‘Tempestuous Elements’ at Arena Stage review: A teacher who never got the fame she deserved

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Born into slavery, she became the first African American woman to earn a doctoral degree from the Sorbonne. She served as president of Frelinghuysen University, co-founded the Colored Women’s League and was invited to speak at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Her writings on Black womanhood have been widely anthologized. In 1905, this very paper recognized her as a “woman of splendid intellectual attainment,” and in 2009, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in her honor.

Yet for all her accomplishments, Anna Julia Cooper remains a relatively obscure figure. Kia Corthron’s “Tempestuous Elements,” running through March 17 at Arena Stage, gives Cooper the Mount Rushmore treatment she so richly deserves. Better-known contemporaries such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington are turned into satellites circling Cooper’s sun; it is her ideas — as a scholar, author, activist and educator — that are given prominence in the world premiere of this powerful new work, commissioned by Arena Stage as part of its Power Plays series.

“Tempestuous Elements” focuses on Cooper’s fraught tenure as principal of the M Street High School in Washington between 1902 and 1906. At a time when many (White male) school leaders preferred to ring-fence educational advancement for White students, Cooper was a staunch advocate for equality of opportunity.

An early scene sees Cooper (a regal Gina Daniels) in air traffic controller mode. She quizzes students on the meaning of sine and cosine, engages another class in Socratic dialogue on “the reparation of Reconstruction” and puts out all kinds of administrative fires. Transparent boards of complex trigonometric equations hang suspended from the flies of Tony Cisek’s shapely set, suggesting an altar of learning.

Under the tenure of M Street’s previous male president, its students outperformed their counterparts at White high schools on some standardized exams, and Cooper is keen to uphold this level of academic excellence. She provides special tutorials for students hoping to be admitted to Yale, Columbia and Oberlin and arranges for Du Bois to speak to her pupils about the benefit of receiving a “well-rounded, eclectic” education. As a Black woman at the turn of the century, her defiance of directives relating to the proper “colored course of study” gradually earns her the chance to walk the professional plank.

When she’s not being accused of “coddling” her students, she’s being berated for her “elitism.” One student, disheartened by his lack of ability to keep up with his peers, confides in her that he plans to transfer to another school to pursue vocational training. “I know you believe I have the mind for a classical education, but I’ve come to see I don’t, Mrs. Cooper. I’ve tried,” says Hiram.

The decision to cast the monumentally charismatic Ro Boddie as this recalcitrant student is perhaps the one weak spot of this production. The actor, recently seen as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at a Round House Theatre production of Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop,” has an undimmable presence that better suits his other roles in this play: W.E.B. Du Bois and North Carolina Rep. George H. White.

Another teacher, Minerva (played with gelid perfection by Yetunde Felix-Ukwu), is a stickler for punctuality and all but accuses Cooper of treating chronic tardiness among students as “a minor infraction.” (LeVonne Lindsay dresses the women in eye-catching period costumes that recall the stylized dresses in Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel.”) A more formidable opponent emerges in the figure of Percy M. Hughes, the director of D.C. high schools and the only White man in the play. After a Black doctor, O.W. Atwood (played by the understudy Jonathan Del Palmer in the performance I saw on opening night), furnishes evidence of a “combine,” or student drinking club, Hughes decides to instigate an investigation conducted by the Board of Education regarding Cooper’s methods (or lack thereof) of disciplining students. They two men tacitly agree that Cooper might not be “robust” enough to fulfill the remit of a leadership role formerly occupied by men.

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Plays with hefty historical undercarriages are at particular risk of becoming glorified Wikipedia entries, but thankfully, this never happens with “Tempestuous Elements,” whose characters feel thrashingly alive and complex rather than indurated by ideologies. It’s also a testament to Psalmayene 24’s tight direction that the arguments in this dialectical drama never devolve into tiresome rhetorical wind sprints. When a student cites Booker T. Washington’s idea that “no race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem,” he’s not simply scrambling toward a beachhead in an abstract argument, but making a heartbreaking confession of the limits of his own abilities and others’ misplaced faith in him. The play’s ending also poetically suggests that book learning and field tilling are not mutually opposed, but closer than some of its characters think.

Tempestuous Elements, written by Kia Corthron. Directed by Psalmayene 24. Choreography and associate direction, Tony Thomas; set design, Tony Cisek; costumes, LeVonne Lindsay; lighting, William K. D’Eugenio; sound design, Lindsay Jones. Through March 17 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington. arenastage.org.

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