The World Premiere of Tempestuous Elements Shines Brightly at Arena Stage

The World Premiere of Tempestuous Elements Shines Brightly at Arena Stage

Arena Stage
Jordan Wright
February 26, 2024
Special to The Zebra

Illustration by Loveis Wise. Courtesy of Arena Stage.

Whether Psalmayene 24 is directing or writing, I know it’s a production I want to see. The pairing of “Psalm” as director of this world premiere with playwright Kia Corthron promised to be an intriguing collaboration. The story centers around teacher and school principal Anna Julia Cooper (the amazing Gina Daniels), a woman for whom the classics – Greek and Latin – and advanced mathematics were crucial to her curriculum. Anna knew that without her students mastering those subjects they’d have no chance of acceptance at Harvard or her alma mater Oberlin College as opposed to traditional HBCU colleges like Tuskegee Institute headed by Booker T. Washington whose influence at the White House afforded him the ear of the President.

Set against a Victorian backdrop, when married women were not allowed to be teachers, the play unfolds to reveal Anna and her fellow female teachers living on campus. For the most part they are all supportive of each other, but we see how professional jealousy can keep the glass ceiling firmly in place.

Anna teaches at M Street School, a private Washington, DC school for Black high school students. After a 20-year tenure, she’s about to get the shaft. It’s insider politics at their most insidious. Throughout the play historical references, societal mores and conflicts within the Black school system work against her high ideals. And although she upholds the highest scholastic standards, she is undermined by her co-worker Minerva Jeffries, who is far more concerned with students’ punctuality than their scholastic abilities. Another teacher, Mary Church Terrell, whose husband secures a seat on the Board of Education plans Anna’s undoing. When Anna’s students begin to exceed the accomplishments of their White counterparts, she is accused of being “elitist”, overstepping her bounds as a female teacher and, in the lowest blow of all, having an affair with her foster son, John.

Gina Daniels, Brittney Dubose, Ro Boddie, Joel Ashur, and Jasmine Joy in Tempestuous Elements. Photo by Kian McKellar.

The play is a history lesson in the competing ideas as to how to educate Black students including the many restrictions placed upon administrators to not “overstep” White imposed boundaries. Invoked are the names of W. E. B. Dubois and Frederick Douglas whose styles of educating Blacks differed substantially. Set a mere two generations after slavery, it touches on the Colored Women’s League, the destruction of Reconstruction, suffragettes, human dignity and the need to educate a new generation of Black students.

I can’t say enough about the caliber of this cast – their clear passion for their roles in presenting this deeply affecting story – as well as the high level of production values in every aspect from costumes to choreography, music to set design. It’s as smooth as silk. And speaking of silk, I learned something new. To dress the men and women of the South in bespoke finery, slaves learned to produce silk by breeding silkworms and weaving the silk from their cocoons on looms. Who knew?

Renea S. Brown and Kevin E. Thorne II in Tempestuous Elements. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

With Kelly Renee Armstrong as Abigail/Lotte; Joel Ashur as Mr. Turner/Francis/Atwood/Charles; Ro Boddie as Hiram/W.E.B. Dubois/Rep. White – played by Jonathan Del Palmer on opening night; Renea S. Brown as Ernestine/Lula/Mrs. Cook/Alumni Association President; Brittney Dubose as Lucretia/Annie; Yetunde Felix-Ukwu as Minerva/Miss Patterson; Jasmine Joy as Ruth/Ivy/Josephine/Principals’ Association Representative; Lolita Marie as Hannah/Mary/Nellie; Paul Morella as Hughes; Kevin E. Thorne II as Lawrence/Silas/John/Dr. Purvis/Dance Captain. Female Understudies – Monique Paige and Renee Elizabeth Wilson.

Associate Director and Choreographer, Tony Thomas; Set Designer, Tony Cisek; Costume Designer, LeVonne Lindsay; Lighting Designer, William K. D’Eugenio; Original Music and Sound Design by Lindsay Jones; Dramaturg, Otis Ramsey-Zöe; Hair and Wig Designer, LaShawn Melton; Dialect and Vocal Coach, Lisa Nathans.

Highly recommended.


Through March 17th on the Fichandler Stage at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information call the box office at 202 554-9066 or visit

Swept Away at Arena Stage Features Music by Grammy Winners The Avett Brothers in a Dark Tale on the High Seas

Swept Away at Arena Stage Features Music by Grammy Winners The Avett Brothers in a Dark Tale on the High Seas

Swept Away
Arena Stage
December 11, 2023
Jordan Wright
Special to The Zebra

Stark Sands (Big Brother), John Gallagher, Jr. (Mate), Wayne Duvall (Captain), and Adrian Blake Enscoe (Little Brother) in Arena Stage’s East Coast premiere of Swept Away. (Photo/Julieta Cervantes)

Swept Away opens with a slow burn culminating into an edge-of-your-seat drama. Scored by The Avett Brothers, an American Roots band who have earned three Grammy Awards, it focusses on the waning days of the whaling trade when whale products were the primary commerce out of the New Bedford, Massachusetts port. Two brothers, named in the program as Little Brother (Adrian Blake Enscoe) and Big Brother (Stark Sands) are on the final voyage of one of the last whaling ships to ply the Atlantic Ocean. They have come from a New England farm where Little Brother ran off to seek adventure and Big Brother followed him onto the ship with the intention of convincing him to come back home. “It’s seed-planting season,” he pleads. But the ship raises anchor before Big Brother can disembark, and now the two boys must begin their adventure together.

The music, taken from the Avett’s Mignonette album, is the glue that holds the plot together with only one song written exclusively for the show. Avett Brothers’ fans, and there seemed to be many in the audience, will recognize their Roots music. Though the combination of soulful and up-tempo songs are a part of the composers’ canon, they had not been written with the show in mind but seem to dovetail seamlessly into the plot.

Stark Sands (Big Brother), Wayne Duvall (Captain), Adrian Blake Enscoe (Little Brother), John Gallagher Jr, (Mate). Taurean Everett (Ensemble), Orville Mendoza (Ensemble), Michael J. Mainwaring (Ensemble), Tyrone L. Robinson (Ensemble), John Sygar (Ensemble), and Cameron Johnson (Ensemble) (Photo/Julieta Cervantes)

It opens with three men imploring a recuperating crewmember to tell the truth, to, “Tell the whole story.” He begins with, “Twenty-one days lost at sea,” which is a familiar tale to anyone who knows the perils sailors faced in those times. Cue Moby Dick.

The story then flashes back to 1888 when the men set sail for the deepest waters of the Atlantic Ocean on their quest to harpoon the massive mammal for a king’s ransom. We meet the rowdy crew of hardened sailors, the Mate (John Gallagher, Jr.) and the Captain (Wayne Duvall). In a show of camaraderie, the sailors bond with each other and the Mate refers to the ragtag crew, “We are pagans and idolators here!” A rowdy group of hardened men unknown to these two hayseeds raised within the Church. “What are we but useless men plying a dying trade,” the Captain asks. Throughout the script and within the lyrics are multiple references to God and salvation.

Stark Sands (Big Brother) and Adrian Blake Enscoe (Little Brother) (Photo/Julieta Cervantes)

Soon the men encounter a terrible storm. The ship goes down and the Captain, the Mate and the two boys are set adrift in a lifeboat. This is where the story goes very dark and becomes well-reflected musically by the striking change in mood.

Directed by Michael Mayer and choreographed by David Neumann, it is bolstered by the talents of Set Designer Rachel Hauck who has created a ghostly ship with old fashioned rigging to fill the stage and backdrop the sailors’ merriment. Yes! There is hornpipe dancing when the men bond as they set to sea. Later Lighting Designer Kevin Adams along with Sound Designer John Shivers and Stage Command Systems’ sophisticated technology seal the dizzying drama which ensues.

Ensemble members: Hunter BrownMatt DeAngelisTaurean Everett (and Dance Captain), Cameron JohnsonBrandon KalmMichael J. MainwaringOrville MendozaTyrone RobinsonJohn Sygar and Jamari Johnson Williams.

Book by John Logan; Music Arrangements and Orchestrations by Brian Usifer and Chris Miller; Music Director Will Van Dyke; Costume Designer Susan Hilferty.

Orville Mendoza (Ensemble), Taurean Everett (Ensemble), Stark Sands (Big Brother), Adrian Blake Enscoe (Little Brother), Jamari Johnson Williams (Ensemble), John Gallagher, Jr. (Mate), Michael J. Mainwaring (Ensemble), John Sygar (Ensemble), and Matt DeAngelis (Ensemble) (Photo/Julieta Cervantes)

In the Kreeger Theater through January 14, 2024 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, Washington, DC 20024. Visit for tickets and information.

POTUS is a Flat-Out, Genius, Madcap Comedy at Arena Stage

POTUS is a Flat-Out, Genius, Madcap Comedy at Arena Stage

Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive
Arena Stage
Jordan Wright
October 20, 2023
Special to The Zebra

Kelly McAndrew, Yesenia Iglesias and Megan Hill in POTUS (Photo/Kian McKellar)

Nothing subtle here, folks. The title tells us everything we should expect – seven women and a nincompoop U. S. President – though I can easily see this zany comedy apply to a few other countries who shall remain nameless. You know who you are. Playwright Selena Fillinger’s POTUS cannily claims to be an amalgamation of U. S. Presidents over the centuries. So, you don’t get to choose just one. Though you’ll see a few buffoons that will seem familiar. To echo the sentiment, the set is decorated with a smattering of their iconic portraits and a glass White House is suspended high above the stage as in, “People who throw stones shouldn’t live in…” yadda, yadda, yadda. Savvy inside-the-Beltway political junkies will fall head over heels for the wisecracks… that is after you pick yourselves up off the floor. When you go, and you can’t ask for a Presidential pardon if you don’t, make sure to have your wits about you. It plays out lightening quick and you don’t want to miss one single, snappy line.

Fillinger has already garnered three Tony noms for POTUS, writes tons of network comedy shows, and promises to keep us rolling in the aisles for many years to come. Her idea of comedy is mine too – loaded with slapstick, pratfalls, parody, witty digs and wacky setups. This one has them all plus a very, very talented cast who play White House operatives, family members and insiders navigating a presidential sh*t show.

Felicia Curry (Photo/Kian McKellar)

Here’s the premise. The Prez has his typically busy daily schedule and all hands are on deck to see that he is on time and on point. These are our magnificent seven: Harriet, his Chief of Staff (Naomi Jacobson); Jean, his Press Secretary (Natalya Lynette Rathnam); Margaret, his wife – The First Lady (Felicia Curry); Chris, a journalist for the Washington Post (Yesenia Iglesias); Dusty, his dalliance (Sarah-Anne Martinez); and Bernadette, his sister (Kelly McAndrew). Just remember they hate each other until they need each other when they will fight to the death to guard the president’s reputation above all else.

The day begins at a meeting with foreign dignitaries and with POTUS dropping an insulting curse word for female genitalia in describing his wife’s mood. We don’t hear or see this gaffe, but the West Wing is on high alert trying to put out this five-alarm fire. In fact, the West Wing will be on constant high alert. Calamity is the modus operandi for these nimble spin doctors.

Sarah-Anne Martinez, Felicia Curry, Yesenia Iglesias, Natalya Lynette Rathnam and Naomi Jacobson (Photo/Margot Schulman)

Fillinger’s characters are sharply-drawn and their intersections are like watching a car crash – riveting, but disastrous, and ultimately hilarious. Here within the confines of the White House, the infighting is WWE-worthy, the barbs are as sharp as poison darts and it’s absolutely, positively delicious. Compare FLOTUS and Harriet to attack dogs. No one in their sphere of influence remains unscathed. They are the president’s gladiators and in some cases quite well-armed.

Director Margot Bordelon cleverly uses the theater-in-the-round technique on the Fichandler Stage to reflect the fishbowl that is the West Wing, employing the aisles for the breakneck chases that ensue. Trust me. No one remains unscathed. There is so much cursing I cannot provide a quote without offending delicate ears. So, dear grownups, this is a warning. Don’t bring your delicate ears, because you won’t want to miss any of the profanity.

In her choice of this sharp-as-knives political comedy, I’d say all the stars have aligned for the debut production of Arena’s new Artistic Director, Hana S. Sharif. I’ll be looking forward to her next selection.

Highly recommended. A flat-out, genius, madcap comedy!

Sarah-Anne Martinez and Megan Hill  (Photo/Margot Schulman)

Set Design by Reid Thompson; Costume Design by Ivania Stack; Lighting Design by Marika Kent; Original Music and Sound Design by Sinan Refik Zafar; Dramaturg Otis Ramsey-Zöe.

Through November 12th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information visit or call the box office at 202 554-9006.

A Poignant, Gritty and Powerful New Play at Arena Stage

A Poignant, Gritty and Powerful New Play at Arena Stage

The High Ground
Arena Stage
Jordan Wright
February 24, 2023
Special to The Zebra

Nehassaiu deGannes (Victoria/Vicky/Vee/The Woman in Black) and Phillip James Brannon (Soldier) (Photo/Margot Schulman)

In recognition of America’s celebration of Black History Month, many area theaters have mounted plays which tell stories drawn from the American Black experience. At Arena Stage’s ongoing commitment of producing newly commissioned American “Power Plays” engages audiences by broadening their knowledge of American history by expressing the very human side of some of our country’s seminal events. To date Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith has produced eight commissioned plays with 17 more to come, each story bearing witness to history and its effect on the human heart. The High Ground is the ninth in this great American experiment.

Written by award-winning playwright, Nathan Alan Davis, the play draws us in by expressing both tenderness and tragedy following the events of the Tulsa Race Massacre in the Spring of 1921. Known as the single worst incident of racial violence in American history, in two days it caused the destruction of what was known as Black Wall Street, saw 300 innocent demonstrators shot dead, burned hospitals, schools and churches, looted houses and displaced up to 10,000 Black Americans from their community of Greenwood. Falsely called a riot by local policemen who brought in heavy armor, machine guns and helicopters, the event gripped the entire nation for two days. When the dust cleared, it turned into a land grab for local Whites.

Nehassaiu deGannes and Phillip James Brannon (Photo/Margot Schulman)

Davis tells this vivid story through a young Black man (Phillip James Brannon) who was shot and killed during the onslaught and returns in spirit to find his community gone. In its place stands Oklahoma State University. The setting is the university’s tower, high upon Standpipe Hill. “Soldier”, as he calls his spirit self, shows signs of severe PTSD. He is reliving the horrific events of the massacre and searching for his wife, played by Nehassaiu deGannes in all the female roles. She first appears to him as Victoria, a former neighbor and student who begs him to leave and accompany her to a funeral; next as Vicky, a policewoman who tries to save his life from an approaching posse of armed police; and lastly as his wife Vee who pleads with him to abandon the hill and leave with her. Robed in a silken white gown, Vee, like the Greek prophetess Cassandra, bears witness to the tragedy and its aftermath, warning of its power to destroy future generations, yet knowing her prophesy will go unheeded.

Nehassaiu deGannes and Phillip James Brannon (Photo/Margot Schulman)

Brannon and deGannes are more than up for the task in this two-hander which has many moving parts and a wealth of deeply emotional dialogue. In transitioning between three separate roles – as college student, policewoman and wife – deGannes displays an impressive ability to inhabit three distinctly different characters and showcase her range. For Brannon, maintaining the combative persona of the anxiety-plagued soldier still capable of love, it is a brilliant achievement.

Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian stages the play with great sensitivity leaning into the pathos and tension created between the characters, the unfolding tragedy and the legacy such violence leaves in its wake.

Highly recommended.

Set Design by Paige Hathaway; Costume Design by Sarita Fellows; Lighting Design by Sherrice Mojgani; Original Music and Sound Design by Nathan Leigh; Dramaturgs Otis Ramsey-Zöe and Jocelyn Clarke.

Through April 2nd at Arena Stage in the Kogod Cradle, 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information visit or call the box office at 202 488-3300.

Ride the Cyclone Is a Dizzying, Hilarious, Catchy, Super-fun, High-Energy Escapade

Ride the Cyclone Is a Dizzying, Hilarious, Catchy, Super-fun, High-Energy Escapade

Ride the Cyclone
Arena Stage
Jordan Wright
January 23, 2023
Special to The Zebra

(l to r) Matthew Boyd Snyder (Ricky Potts), Nick Martinez (Noel Gruber), Gabrielle Dominique (Constance Blackwood), Eli Mayer (Mischa Bachinski), Ashlyn Maddox (Jane Doe), and Shinah Hey (Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg) (Photo/Margot Schulman)

When the St. Cassian teen chamber choir falls to their deaths in a freak accident while riding a roller coaster at The Wonderville Traveling Fair, they enter the distant future and we do too. It is here they encounter The Amazing Karnak (Marc Geller), a “pre-cognition machine” who recalls the turban-crowned fortune tellers of yesteryear. Encased in his gilded booth, Karnak gives the five teens an ultimatum – plus a lot of shtick.  They must unanimously select the one among them who will be brought back to life. No small feat. He creates a contest with crazy prizes and in their zeal to present themselves as the most accomplished, or unfailingly sympathetic candidate, they each act out their personal stories with remarkable honesty hoping to be the chosen one. However, a mystery teen appears among them – a beautiful, anonymous girl who could not be identified due to her injuries. She is called Jane Doe (Ashlyn Maddox on the night I went – then Katie Mariko Murray) and she is as ethereal and haunting as a wraith.

Despite the six spinning through the air to their death, a grim premise indeed, the story quickly does a one-eighty becoming a captivating charmer with all the thrills and chills (and spills!) of a festive night at a carnival. We easily find ourselves transported to the future along with the teens as they weave their personal stories to win a second chance at life. Is it a game? Or is it just a ride? Fourteen cleverly written songs with lyrics that are easy to understand hold this wild ride together.

Nick Martinez (Noel Gruber), Shinah Hey (Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg), Matthew Boyd Snyder (Ricky Potts), Gabrielle Dominique (Constance Blackwood), Eli Mayer (Mischa Bachinski), and Marc Geller (The Amazing Karnak) (Photo/Margot Schulman)

Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg (Shinah Hey) is an over-achiever (reminiscent of Elle in Legally Blonde) who presents herself as the perfect high school princess. Ocean’s bestie is Constance Blackwood (Gabrielle Dominique), a weight-challenged nerd, and self-proclaimed “nice girl” who appears to cave to Ocean’s bossiness… until she doesn’t.

Noel Gruber (Nick Martinez), who appears shy, then bursts out of his shell to reveal his secret life (Sorry, no spoilers here.). Suffice it to say there is a sultry tango, a personality change-up and a seedy French nightclub. Mischa Bachinski (Eli Mayer) is anything but shy. He is a Ukrainian hip-hopper and beat-box fan who’s in love with a peasant girl from the Old Country. He loves to sing, as long as he’s backed by Auto-Tune. And then there’s Ricky Potts (Matthew Boyd Snyder) who lives in an imaginary world of sexy space kittens and extra-terrestrials. They are all hilarious in their own individual ways.

Eli Mayer (Mischa Bachinski) and Nick Martinez (Noel Gruber) (Photo/Margot Schulman)

Set in a dilapidated warehouse in Uranium City, Saskatchewan, Canada, this quirky, captivating, hilarious, rock musical chock-a-block with vintage carnival artifacts has been making the cult circuit for 15 years. Premiering at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center, Ride the Cyclone is a dizzying, hilarious, catchy, super-fun, high-energy escapade.

Music, Book and Lyrics by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell; Directed by Sarah Rasmussen; Original Choreography by Jim Lichtscheidl with Additional Choreography by Tiger Brown; Set Design by Scott Davis; Costume Design by Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design by Jiyoun Chang; Sound Design by André Pluess.

Gabrielle Dominique (Constance Blackwood), Matthew Boyd Snyder (Ricky Potts), Shinah Hey (Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg), Nick Martinez (Noel Gruber), Eli Mayer (Mischa Bachinski), and Marc Geller (The Amazing Karnak) (Photo/Margot Schulman)

Through February 19th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information visit or call the box office at 202 488-3300.    

Arena Stage Presents a Timely and Powerful Drama on Immigration

Area Stage Presents a Timely and Powerful Drama on Immigration

Sanctuary City
Arena Stage
Jordan Wright
October 29, 2022
Special to The Zebra

Hernán Angulo (B) and María Victoria Martínez (G) (Photo/Margot Schulman)

Dreamers. Sounds romantic, doesn’t it? Like two lovers planning a life together, like Chagall’s painting “Lovers and Sunflowers” of a couple embracing and swirling among the flowers beneath a full moon. This is not that. It is something entirely different. Sanctuary City tells a story of anguish, hopes dashed, fear of discovery, futures in jeopardy. It is the real real of illegal immigrants who have been subsisting on the fringes in America – many who have been working, raising children, going to school, paying taxes, buying homes – with hopes on hold buffeted about by the ever-changing political winds.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Martyna Majok knows this world. As a Polish immigrant, she became one of America’s leading drama writers and it’s no surprise that she is more than capable of turning her pen to this controversial issue. Here Majok focusses on two teenaged schoolmates who navigate their way through the intricacies of the American judicial system. Through school and menial jobs, through ever-constant fears of deportation, they try to make a life in America, but it’s a day-by-day struggle. Hopes and dreams are on hold. Incarceration and deportation loom large.

Kim Fischer (Henry) in the West Coast premiere of Martyna Majok’s Sanctuary City

B (Hernán Angulo) and G (María Victoria Martínez) have been in the country for 10 years. Everything they know is here, including the stress of discovery and living on expired visas. B finds himself in a dizzying dilemma when his mother returns to Mexico leaving him on his own. At the same time G’s mother finally becomes a naturalized citizen, which gives G American citizenship too.

Told in stop-action snapshots of their friendship we learn the toll it takes on their everyday lives. When G offers B a legal way out through marriage she discovers a part of B that she never knew. Before G goes off to college leaving B to his menial dishwasher job, they rehearse the interminable questions ICE will at a home visit ask to determine if theirs is a real marriage and if they are truly a couple. They know that getting caught in a lie or a false step means a quarter of million dollar fine plus five years in prison if they are caught trying to manipulate the system.

Hernán Angulo (B) and María Victoria Martínez (G) (Photo/Margot Schulman)

Will they go through with it? Will they be believed? Will they succeed in becoming citizens? Green cards, and hopefully permanent citizenship for B, are straws in the wind, but only if they play it right. And can they show their fondness for each other when Henry (Kim Fischer) arrives to throw a wrench in their plans?

This timely drama features the two lead actors from the original cast from the Berkeley Repertory Theatre under the original direction by David Mendizábal. It is set in 2001 through 2006 in Newark, New Jersey and its environs where Majok grew up.

A powerful and important perspective on immigration that everyone should see.

Through November 27th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information visit or call the box office at 202 554-9066.