Tempestuous Elements director Psalmayene 24. Courtesy Scott Suchman
By Southwester Staff
The life of Anna Julia Cooper, spanning over a century from 1858, when she was born into slavery in Raleigh, North Carolina to her death in 1964 in Washington DC, is one filled with dramatic moments.
Tempestuous Elements, opening February 16 at Arena Stage, focuses on one significant moment that exemplifies her advocacy on race relations, women’s rights and education.
Cooper taught Latin at M Street High School (later to become Dunbar High School), and became its second black principal in 1901. A controversy arose when Cooper advocated for classical education as promoted by W. E. B. Du Bois, “designed to prepare eligible students for higher education and leadership” versus the vocational program espoused by Booker T. Washington. Cooper herself became the fourth Black woman in American history to earn a Doctor of Philosophy degree, which was awarded to her at the age of 65 by the Sorbonne for her work in medieval French literature.
To learn more about how the story of Anna Cooper’s remarkable life was brought to the stage, The Southwester heard from two of the artistic minds behind the show.
The show’s director, Psalmayene 24, is well-known to theater goers in the Washington DC area for his work with Arena Stage, Studio Theater, Mosaic Theater, Ford’s Theater and more.
The Southwester: What about Tempestuous Elements made you want to direct it?
Psalmayene 24: Among my goals as a director is to work at great theaters and direct great plays written by the best playwrights. As a director of African descent, I’m drawn to plays that uniquely illuminate the Black experience through content and/or form. Tempestuous Elements checks all of these boxes. Arena Stage is one of our premier American theaters and to have the opportunity to direct this production in the Fichandler—a legendary theater-in-the-round—is a huge honor and a dream come true. Kia Corthron is an extraordinary and well-respected playwright who holds a particularly beloved place in the Black theatrical community. Saying yes to this production was a no-brainer.
SW: What is the artistic/research process behind directing a play so full of history? What are some of your preparations for a work like this? How familiar were you with Anna Julia Cooper when you signed on?
P24: For me, the artistic/research process for a play like this—one that is so steeped in history—starts with fidelity to the time period. Once you know and are familiar with what is historically accurate, then you can make choices within the production that are in harmony with the time period. Or you can make choices that might deliberately break the rules of the time period or are anachronistic in some slight way that better serves the production.
The research process for this play obviously includes reading material by Anna J. Cooper. One only has to read a few sentences from her book, A Voice from the South, in order to realize that you are dealing with someone with a magnificent mind. My research also includes being familiar with the ideas of W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I was not familiar with Anna J. Cooper prior to this project, so diving into the world of the play has been eye-opening and revelatory.
SW: How does this play differ from your many other DC stage productions over the last 25 years? How do you feel it fits into the overall DC theater landscape?
P24: This is the first play that I’ve directed that centers on a Black woman who is a figure of historical importance. I’ve written and directed plays with Black women as protagonists, but those pieces were works of fiction.
There is a different level of responsibility that I feel helming a production that is about a woman who actually existed—especially a woman with the stature of Anna J. Cooper.
This play fits like a missing puzzle piece into the landscape of DC theater. This is a woman whose legacy is woven into the fabric of this city, but somehow the threads of that legacy have been obscured. I’m thankful that this play and production will throw Anna J. Cooper’s legacy into high relief.
SW: What is your approach to bringing this story to a DC stage and audience?
P24: My approach to bringing this play to life on a DC stage and for a DC audience starts with tapping into the soul of the text. It all begins with the script. The predominant element of this play is its language. There is a trenchant beauty and richness to the words these characters speak. This production aims to highlight that language while also selectively animating the ideas of the play through spectacle and movement.
Casting is also a means by which this production is intentionally in conversation with a DC audience. All but one of the eleven actors in this production are based in the DMV. So when you see the actors on stage, you are primarily seeing artists rooted in the DC community. This production is a real gift to DC and I can’t wait to share it with audiences at Arena.
Scenic designer Tony Cisek has worked on shows at the Signature Theater, Folger Theater, Kennedy Center and more.
The Southwester: What was your artistic/research process like? Were you already familiar with Anna Julia Cooper when you signed on?
Tony Cisek: This play was my first introduction to the force of nature that was Anna Julia Cooper. I sense that I will not be the only person unfamiliar with Anna’s remarkable story before encountering this play, which makes it all the more exciting to be involved in sharing it with Arena’s audiences.
I typically begin my design process by reading the play multiple times so I can get to know the play on several different levels: the basic plot, the larger dramatic arcs, the themes that reverberate, the practical details. At some point in that process, I begin conversations with the director to discuss our particular takes on the story, to see what overlaps, what resonates with both of us. That usually points me in a particular direction.
For this project I continued my process by reading some of Anna’s writings, searching for visual images relating to schools of the period, and as always, musing on how the scenic design could help the audience connect with the story.
SW: What inspiration did you pull from when designing the set? What, if any, special challenges did you face?
TC: Our director, Psalmayene 24, really wanted to lean into the notion of Anna being caught in a storm—the tempest alluded to in the title of the play. I thought about what Anna was fighting for, what was at the center of the storm, the classical curriculum of the M Street School, and how it embodied her belief that education paved the surest way forward for her students in the America of 1900. That idea became the inspiration for the scenic design, and my task became how to create an environment that would visually manifest that idea.
The primary challenge when designing in-the-round is that the audience is seated all around the action. That means you can’t put anything in the space that’s going to block anyone’s view from anywhere—at least not for more than a moment or two. There are two scenes in the play that take place in classrooms and require chalkboards. Chalkboards as we know them would block sight lines to the actors for some of the audience. Exploring solutions to this practical problem led me to a solution for the larger design.
SW: What would you like the audience to notice or pay close attention to? How does your set coordinate with the other design aspects of the production (lighting, costumes, etc.)?
TC: The success of any scenic design is heavily dependent on the work of the lighting designer, in that he or she controls what we see and how we see it. So I try to engage the lighting designer in my design process as early as possible.
In the best cases, it becomes “our” design process: we develop the environment together. In this production, there are lighting elements embedded throughout the scenic design that “activate” the environment, that have the ability to change its character. This could not have happened without a deep trust in and respect for the lighting designer, in this case Billy D’Eugenio, a frequent collaborator of mine.
In addition, I adjusted the tonality of the set in response to the palette developed by our costume designer, Levonne Lindsay. She was anchoring her palette to a particular image made up of stormy blues and purples, and I wanted to be sure the environment around the actors supported this palette. My original palette was less complementary, so I created a range of alternatives and shared them with Levonne. In the end, we chose the final scenic palette together.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
The show isn’t over when it is time to go home. There is so much more to learn about Anna Cooper and her place in the history of American thought and education. Her book A Voice from the South, published in 1892, is now available on Kindle.
Tempestuous Elements at Arena runs from Feb. 16 to March 17, 2023. Southwest Nights are Tuesday, March 5 at 7:30 p.m. and Friday, March 15 at 8:00 p.m.