‘Step Afrika! Step Explosion’

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I just discovered a phenomenal performing arts group that rocked and moved me as much as any experience in theater I can recall. The name of the group is Step Afrika!, an organization renowned around the world for its use of the traditional dance form of stepping to inspire young people, build community, develop talent, and much more.

I had heard of Step Afrika! but it was not on my mental map of the DC theater landscape. I thought of it as something separate, as dance (an art form I can appreciate but I never look to, as I do to theater, as my soul sustenance of choice).

I was wrong.

Reginald Barrington, Christopher Brient, Danielle Dubois Glover, Joe Murchison, Artis J. Olds, Brittny Smith, Jordan Spry, and Andrew Vinson Jr. Photo courtesy of Step Afrika!
Reginald Barrington, Christopher Brient, Danielle Dubois Glover, Joe Murchison, Artis J. Olds, Brittny Smith, Jordan Spry, and Andrew Vinson Jr. Photo courtesy of Step Afrika!

Within minutes of watching a Step Afrika! performance the other day at Pepco’s Edison Place Gallery—it was called Step Xplosion, a free show that tours all eight wards of the District every summer—something began to stir in me and flood me. By the end, exhilarated and blown away, I realized that Step Afrika! is completely of a piece with everything that matters most to me about theater. As art, as lens on life, as live performance, as communal ritual, as collective humanizer, as moral compass, as change agent (the list goes on), Step Afrika! purely as theater is absolutely extraordinary.

This is my short list of what impressed me:

The virtuosity of the performers (all utterly amazing); the caliber and precision of the choreography (inventive and inspired); the connection and engagement with the audience (a bond built, never broken); the percussive, propulsive beats (the surround sound of unison hands, feet, and voices); and especially the stories—set up in a spoken introduction then told implicitly and powerfully solely through sound and movement (stories of political unity and resistance, of racial justice, of gender equality, of human worth and hope).

Step Afrika! does a world of worthy work. You can check out all that they do online. It’s awesome. But until you’ve shared the same sound and sight space with some of Step Afrika!’s artists in a live performance, you likely won’t know what I’m talking about when I say that Step Afrika! doesn’t need to do any more of what theater does; theater needs to do more of what Step Afrika! does.

Running Time: 45 minutes.

Step Afrika!’s annual Step Xplosion tour plays three more free performances in Washington, DC:

Tomorrow, September 9, 2015, at 6 pm at Deanwood Recreation Center (1350 49th Street NE)

—September 13, 2015, at 6 pm at Joy of Motion (sold out), Friendship Heights (5207 Wisconsin Avenue NW);

—September 16, 2015, at 6 pm at Columbia Heights Recreation Center (1480 Girard Street NW).

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Step Afrika!’s Step Xplosion tour culminates with Step Show September 26th at 2 pm at Raymond Recreation Center (3725 10th Street NW).

All performances are free. Reservations online are recommended.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1555.gif

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.