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Arts & Culture

The Most Important Black Educator You've Never Heard Of

Alum's New Play Premieres at Arena Stage

By Sala Levin ’10

Kia Corthron portrait and “Tempestuous Elements” program cover

Kia Corthron ‘84 (left) is the playwright behind Tempestuous Elements, which premieres tonight at Arena Stage and tells the story of Anna Julia Cooper (right), an advocate for Black education whose story has largely been forgotten by history.

Images courtesy of Arena Stage

If you’ve ever waited in a painfully long customs line, looking for any relief from the monotony, you might have found yourself flipping through your passport and reading the inspirational quotes from American luminaries superimposed over scenes of Western mountains, New York Harbor and Mount Rushmore. John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and George Washington are all in these pages, touting the greatness of the American promise.

At the very end, you’ll find the sole woman represented: “The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class—it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity,” from Anna Julia Cooper.


Tempestuous Elements,” a new play by Kia Corthron ’84 premiering Friday evening at Washington, D.C.’s renowned Arena Stage, attempts to answer that question, bringing the largely forgotten legacy of an educator, author, sociologist and academic into the 21st century.

“This incredible woman should be part of all the history books,” said Corthron.

Born into enslavement in 1858 in North Carolina, Cooper demonstrated her academic prowess early, insisting on taking the more rigorous classes reserved for boys at Saint Augustine’s Normal School and Collegiate Institute in Raleigh. She went on to Oberlin College, where she earned both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in mathematics, only the second Black woman in the U.S. to earn a master’s. After that, she completed a Ph.D. on France’s relationship to slavery at the Sorbonne in Paris, making her the fourth African American woman to earn a doctorate.

Cooper became an advocate for classical education for Black children, leading Washington, D.C.’s M Street School, and eventually taking on the presidency of Frelinghuysen University, a historically Black university in D.C. that closed in 1960. Along the way, she also wrote the book “A Voice From the South,” widely considered one of the first declarations of Black feminism.

Despite Cooper’s achievements, Corthron didn’t even know that she existed until she began conducting research for a different play, “Fish,” about the contemporary public school system.

“Even just finding straight-up biographical research (about Cooper)—it’s there, but it’s few and far between,” said Corthron.

It was a surprise to Corthron to discover this entirely foreign corner of the Black American experience. Her career as a playwright has always revolved around themes of social justice, women’s issues, workers’ rights and other sociopolitical topics. Her most widely produced play, “Breath, Boom,” is about a girls’ gang in New York City, and has been performed in London, New York City, and Washington, D.C., among other cities.

“It’s just that that’s what I’m drawn to write about,” Corthron said.

Growing up in Cumberland, Md., Corthron was almost destined to be a writer. Her father worked at a local paper mill and brought home “reams of paper and pencils and pens, and once in a while, a stapler,” Corthron said, providing young Kia all the materials she needed to tell stories. In second grade, after a classroom assignment asking the students to write about their best friend, Corthron’s teacher told her she should be a writer. (“I wrote that my best friend was my mother,” Corthron said. “The teacher told my mother, and she was just delighted.”)

At UMD, Corthron studied radio, film and television, and took fiction writing classes. “I was interested immediately in playwriting, but it was only offered at one time in the evenings,” she said. “I didn’t really want to take an evening class, so I kept putting it off until my last semester.” The class, taught by Jewell Parker Rhodes, “really changed the direction of my life,” Corthron said.

At the end of the semester, all of the students brought in friends in the theatre department to act out a scene from the plays they’d been writing. After Corthron’s scene—about the tension between a recently returned Vietnam War veteran and his sister—ended and the lights came on, the room was silent. “In that moment, all of the flattery I’d had about my writing in all my years of schooling did not mean so much as the fact that this particular audience was rendered speechless,” Corthron said.

In “Tempestuous Elements,” Corthron tells the story of a 1905 conflict between Cooper, then principal of the M Street School, and the D.C. Board of Education. The city wanted the school to teach its students trades, while Cooper pushed for a traditional academic education.

“This is an incredibly special show because it illuminates a chapter in the life of an important Black woman that somehow history seems to have forgotten,” said Psalmayene 24, a playwright, director and actor who is directing “Tempestuous Elements.” “The way Kia has written this story, and how she’s focused it on (Cooper’s) tumultuous years at the M Street School, is a really smart choice that will resonate with audiences in these times.”

Schools & Departments:

College of Arts and Humanities

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