Review: ‘The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence’ at Step Afrika!

If you have never seen Step Afrika! before, know that the experience will astound.

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Step Afrika!, the acclaimed African American dance company, launched this powerful multisensory dance-theater work eight years ago. Since then the spectacular show has toured the world and had a sold-out three-week run Off-Broadway. It has now returned home to DC for a limited run, after which, said Founder and Executive Director C. Brian Williams on opening night, the show will not be performed again.

If you have never seen Step Afrika! before, know that the experience will astound.

The Migration depicts the Great Migration of 1910–1930, when, driven by shifts in labor-market demand, African Americans from the rural South moved by the thousands to the industrial North, for jobs and the hope of a better life. In 1939, a painter named Jacob Lawrence, then only 23, memorialized that epic history in a series of 60 paintings called The Migration Project (30 of which can be seen in DC at the Phillips Collection and 30 of which are in New York at MoMa). Taking inspiration from those paintings, Step Afrika! set them to movement and music, hence the program’s subtitle, Reflections on Jacob Lawrence.

Step Afrika!’s The Migration. Photo by William Peregrine.

The backstory is the through line from capitalist economic forces to early twentieth-century disruption in the black family to a youthful painter’s tempera storyboard to a vivid reimagining and animation onstage. And as with all its work, Step Afrika! brings to the narrative its polish, precision, passion, and irrepressible rhythm.

At the beginning, the stage is set with a dozen drums. On either side are kente-cloth-like curtain legs, and on the back wall are five projection screens, mounted as if on oversize easels. Some show a black-and-white photograph of the painter; others, his self-portrait.

With “Drum Call,” the program starts in Africa as the ensemble in African-inspired costumes delivers a fusillade of drumming, in stunning unison and dextrous syncopation. An anthemic melody rumbles below. A solo djembe and flute join in. Step Afrika! dances typically feature stepping, loud staccato stomping with boots or other footwear, but the ensemble now are barefoot, their full-bodied choreography expressive of a shared origin story.

Step Afrika!’s The Migration. Photo by William Peregrine.

The narrative continues in America with “Go West” and the introduction of another signature Step Afrika! dance move, synchronized slapping and pounding one’s own body as if it’s a percussion instrument, all the while leaping, skipping, and strutting. The visual and aural effect is hypnotic. And we in the audience get to join in rhythmic clapping that becomes rousingly antiphonal.

Among the pivotal points in African American history recounted in “Drumfolk” is the retaliatory Negro Act of 1740, which forbade Africans to, among other things, use drums. “They took the drums away. But they could not stop the beat,” goes a refrain. Thereafter, communal memory and community invention create a culture combining African gumboot dancing, tap, stepping, and spirituals. And as rendered in The Migration, it is as if we are witnessing a history of musical and choreographic resistance that could be told no more spellbindingly than by this masterful troupe.

We get glimpses in projected paintings by Lawrence of everyday life. People packed together in waiting rooms. The bell on a steam locomotive signifying the trains that transported them. A saxophone wails. Suddenly a stark simple image appears: A lone figure grieving, a knot of rope hanging from a branch—and a heavy stillness falls.

Step Afrika! programs do not typically include singing but The Migration showcases some  magnificent soloists and choristers, as on a gorgeous “Wade in the Water.”

Step Afrika!’s The Migration. Photo by William Peregrine.

The caliber of the dancers is uniformly thrilling. As the story moves to cities in the North, the men wear spiffy vests and the women fluffy floor-length frocks. The men’s sturdy footwear would seem to be more made for stomping than are the women’s low-heeled shoes, and those long skirts might seem an encumbrance, but this is an ensemble with physical strength, vigor, agility, and grace in equal and ungendered measure—a solidarity I have observed in every Step Afrika! show I’ve seen.

This parity enriches the storytelling, as in a passage that features two trios, one of men and one of women. The three men, headed north, do an amazing tap number with luggage. The three women, temporarily left behind of economic necessity, do an equally amazing tap number. The “anything you can do I can do better” motif appears delightfully in other work by the company. But here—as a recording of “My Man’s Gone Now” is heard—we see the two trios in a tableau and they are not dueling; they are separated, apart, in unspoken sadness.

Despite the sorrow and hardship in the historical record and the colorful but sometimes bleak imagery in Lawrence’s paintings, Step Afrika! approaches the narrative with optimism and hope. At the end, when stage lights blaze brighter than they’ve ever been, the entire ensemble appears on stage as if suffused by joy. Apparently in the same spirit, the audience on opening night leaped to its feet in sustained applause.

Do not miss this last chance to catch a locally grown genuine masterpiece.

Program

DRUM CALL
Choreographed/Composed by Jakari Sherman and W.E. Smith
Original Recording of “African Villages” by W.E. Smith

The drum has always been essential to African culture everywhere and is critical to the rhythm of migration. Drum Call depicts an African village, the arrival of foreign ships, and the ensuing turmoil. 

GO WEST: circa 1730
Choreographed by Makeda Abraham with contributions from Mfoniso Akpan. Aseelah Shareef, and Delaunce Jackson
Djembe by Kofi Agyei
Flute by Lionel B Lyles II

When Africans arrived in America, their music and dance traditions were ingrained in the culture. Go West explores how West African dance and drum traditions spread and maintained their vitality in the New World. 

DRUMFOLK
Choreographed by David Pleasant

Drumfolk references the practice of early African American traditions of patting juba, hambone, and ring shout that would give birth to art forms like tap dance and stepping. The work also reflects on the harsh conditions in the South that motivated both escape and migration as well as the Negro Act of 1740 where Africans lost the right to assemble; read or write, and use their drums.

WADE SUITE

Wade shows the continuity in African and African-American percussive dance traditions by blending the South African Gumboot Dance, tap and stepping with the African American spiritual. 

Movement One: THE DEACON’S DANCE
Performed by Ronnique Murray
Lead Vocals by Brittny Smith

The African American spiritual played a significant role in lifting the spirit in troubled times. In The Deacon’s Dance, a deacon prepares for Sunday services.

Movement Two: WADE
Choreographed by Kirsten Ledford, LeeAnet Noble, and Paul Woodmff

After the abolition of slavery, the church remained a center of refuge and community building amidst the harsh conditions and served as a primary means of communication for industries recruiting labor during World War I. Wade highlights the importance of the church in helping African Americans survive the South, and its critical role in helping vulnerable migrants resettle in the North.

—INTERMISSION—

TRANE SUITE

Throughout the Great Migration, the train was an important means of transporting people to the North. The entire railroad industry recruited heavily in the South and thus, economically, became a primary means of African American’s “one-way ticket to a new life. 

Movement One: TRANE
Original Recording of “Trane” by W. E. Smith
Saxophone by Lionel B. Lyles II
Choreographed by Jakari Sherman
Creation of Trane made possible by the DC Jazz Festival.

The opening movement, Trane, establishes the connection between past and present: the rhythm of the train north; and the Alpha “train,” a time-honored element of stepping practiced by brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.

Movement Two: OFF THE TRAIN
Choreographed by Jakari Sherman

Three men arrive in the North, luggage in hand…thrilled about the possibilities.

Movement Three: MY MAN’S GONE NOW
Choreographed by Mfoniso Akpan, Aseelah Alien, Dionne Eleby, Kevin Marr and Jakari Sherman
Recording of “My Man’s Gone Now” by Nina Simone

During the migration, it was common for men to journey north without their wives or children because of the high cost of travel. This left many women at home in the South caring for children and struggling to find work. My Man’s Gone Now is the story of three women, each in a different phase of their transition to the North and ready to be reunited with their loved one. 

CHICAGO
Choreographed by Jakari Sherman

Between the 1910s and 1920. more than 400.000 African American migrants left the South for many Northern and Western cities, including Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Chicago. By the end of the 1920s, that number exceeded 1.2 million.

Chicago finds the migrant’s new rhythm in everyday situations. It is a percussive symphony using body percussion and vocals to highlight the collective self-transformation of these brave men and women once they arrived “Up North.”

Credits

Directed by Jakari Sherman
Featuring: Mfoniso Akpan, Dionne Eleby, Matthew Evans, Kara Jenelle, Jabari Jones, Conrad Kelly, Vincent Montgomery, Joe Murchison, Ronnique Murray, Olabode “Buddie” Oladeinde, Anesia Sandifer, Jakari Sherman, Brittny Smith, Jordan Spry, Jerel L. Williams, Ta’quez Whitted
Vocalists: Ryan Collins, Roy Patton
With Special Guests Kofi Agyei, Lionel B. Lyles II
Scenic Design: Harlan Penn
Costume Design: Kenaan Quander
Lighting/Projection Design: John D. Alexander
Sound Design: Patrick Calhoun
Sound Engineer: Kevin Alexander
Production/Company Manager: John D. Alexander
Founder and Executive Director: C. Brian Williams

Running Time: Approximately one hour 30 minutes, including one intermission.

The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence plays through June 17, 2018, at Step Afrika! performing at The Catholic University’s Hartke Theatre – 3801 Harewood Road NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them at the box office, or online.

 

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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.