It is incredibly rare to read a play that not only invokes both historical and contemporary reflections on education and its role in the enduring struggle for equality but places those issues squarely in our city. Just a few miles north of our beloved Arena Stage lives the historic M Street School, the setting of Kia Corthron’s soaring and searing Power Play which brings the legacy of Anna Julia Cooper to brilliant life on the Fichandler stage. I feel profoundly fortunate to welcome you to Tempestuous Elements.

Growing up in Houston, TX, we were all encouraged to read, understand and debate the particular philosophical differences between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. In fact, indelible in my brain are the reverberations of the sing-song verse of Dudley Randall’s poem, “Booker T. and W.E.B.,” that I memorized as a child:

“It seems to me,” said Booker T.,

“It shows a mighty lot of cheek

To study chemistry and Greek

When Mister Charlie needs a hand

To hoe the cotton on his land,

And when Miss Ann looks for a cook,

Why stick your nose inside a book?”

“I don’t agree,” said W.E.B.,

“If I should have the drive to seek

Knowledge of chemistry or Greek,

I’ll do it. Charles and Miss can look

Another place for hand or cook.

Some men rejoice in skill of hand,

And some in cultivating land,

But there are others who maintain

The right to cultivate the brain.”

Anna Julia Cooper, a teacher at the M Street School, believed in the profound intellectual potential of her M Street students. Their fulfillment of that potential, however, as they outperformed their white peers, set off a domino effect of scandalous accusations and virulent attempts to undermine her intellectual legitimacy, which leave us, sixty years after her passing, to consider: what are the costs for Black women who dare to challenge the patriarchal and oppressive structures that uphold the status quo?

Tempestuous Elements allows us to examine the function and impact of these structures through the prismatic history of our very own city. Each of us, no matter our background, can certainly comprehend what it means to feel constrained by narrow perceptions of others. Even in 2024, against the backdrop of Dr. Claudine Gay’s resignation from her appointment at Harvard University, we can trace the cracks from the cumulative pressure on the glass ceiling that spiders outwards as women, people of color, and intellectual pioneers continue to chafe against the status quo.

It is a privilege to be a part of Arena’s legacy as we continue in our mission of birthing new stories, stories that reach out with both hands to grapple with the questions, past and present, of possibility, legacy, and purpose.


Gina Daniels for Tempestuous Elements. Photo by Tony Powell.

Photo of Hana Sharif by Cheshire Isaac.