The notorious exuberance of Step Afrika! burst onstage at the Music Center at Strathmore in the DC premiere of their latest program, Drumfolk, inspired by the little-known Stono Rebellion of 1739 in South Carolina.
Described as “a celebration of resistance, resilience, and reclamation,” Drumfolk relays events of the Rebellion when enslaved Africans used their drums to communicate with one another, warn about impending danger, and fortify spirits to rebel. The country — alarmed by the power of the drum to strengthen the resolve of the enslaved to fight for their freedom — retaliated by imposing even harsher rules and repressive laws as in the Negro Act of 1740, which banned slaves from reading, congregating, and using the drum. Drumfolk captures the spirit of the experience in full force as reflected in the haunting refrain: “They took the drums away, but they could not stop the beat!”
The opening scenes invoke the Black church, one of the few places where the enslaved could gather and worship. The hardship of plantation life provokes several slaves to band together to revolt. The dancer portraying the leader of the group is rock solid in his movements and determination. The African influence is also seen in the mesmerizing masked strawman dancers, representing spirits and foreboding of treachery. The Stono Rebellion terrified the white majority so much that the treatment of slaves was forever altered. At one point, the performers recite the actual text of the Negro Act of 1740. It’s a devastating reality.
When Africans were forbidden from using their drums, they found a way to keep the beats going. Drumfolk demonstrates how the enslaved would not be deterred and retained vestiges of their rhythmic culture in developing innovative new percussive artforms. Some of our country’s most distinct traditions — like the ring shout, tap, and stepping — are on splendid display, as in the beautiful passages “Un/Afraid” and “Free” in the second half.
As athletic as the men were, the women dancers were just as fierce in the powerful articulation of their movements, their punches, arm thrusts, and barrel turns. In addition to performing in sister circles, the female dancers included hard-hitting, stomping, and pounding performance lines in the distinctive Step Afrika! style. It’s an incredible sight to see.
All the signature moves were there — high kicks, stomps, incredibly aligned steps, including a couple of my faves, bottoms smacking the floor with flourish, making you wonder, How’d they do that? The dancers moved seamlessly from African dance technique to gospel to modern urban movement with ease. On cue, they assembled perfectly synchronized with military precision to relay the message of the moment, beautifully staged, directed, and choreographed by Jakari Sherman.
And that’s the special wonder of this piece — the clarity in presenting the different styles of movement and dance to tell the story. Sherman’s creative design infuses the energy of various styles into the steps and combinations filled with force and determination. The opening spiritual sequence is performed with reverence, graceful movements, and loving care. Jubilation abounds in “Jubilee,” and the entire second half is a testament to the endurance and resilience of people who refused to stay silenced.
Costumes by Kenaan M. Quander vary from khaki-colored britches to torn and ragged-edged sackcloth during enslavement, military-precise black including berets for endurance and empowerment, then white flowing pantsuits at the end, a stunning range. Lighting by Marianne Meadows is also remarkably effective relaying moments of turmoil and streaks of red during the brutality and softened comforting hues during the exuberance of freedom. Sound Designer Patrick Calhoun maintained levels of acoustics for spoken words, songs, and the powerful drums in perfect balance, quite an accomplishment and not an easy undertaking.
The award-winning company has a way of interconnecting dance rhythm, Afro-centric movement, and enough soul to shatter the rooftops. The program notes say it all:
Step Afrika! blends percussive dance styles practiced by historically African American fraternities and sororities; traditional African dances; and an array of contemporary dance and art forms into a cohesive, compelling artistic experience. Performances are much more than dance shows; they integrate songs, storytelling, humor and audience participation. The blend of technique, agility, and pure energy makes each performance unique and leaves the audience with their hearts pounding.
After performing in several East Coast cities this spring, Drumfolk returns to DC for a run at Arena Stage May 31 to June 26 before resuming its national and international tour. This exciting show brings history to life in smashingly real stepping glory and is not to be missed.
Running Time: One hour 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Step Afrika’s Drumfolk played March 3 and 4, 2022, at The Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, MD.
Step Afrika’s Drumfolk tour will play from May 31 to June 26, 2022, in the Fichandler Stage at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($56–$72 during the week, $76–$95 on weekends) may be purchased online, by phone at 202-488-3300, or at the Arena Stage sales office Tuesday through Saturday from noon until 8 p.m. for phone purchases and beginning 90 minutes prior to each performance until curtain for in-person purchases. For information on savings programs such as pay-your-age tickets, student discounts, Southwest Nights, and hero’s discounts, visit arenastage.org/tickets/savings-programs.
COVID Safety: Proof of vaccination against COVID-19 and photo identification must be shown to enter the building. Arena’s complete safety protocols are here.
Yao Adu, Christylez Bacon (musician), Emanual Chacon, Quran Chamberlain, Dionne Eleby, Jabari Jones, Akievia Hickman, Conrad R. Kelly II, Dustin Praylow, Anesia Sandifer, Jonathan McClinton Smith, Valencia Odeyka Emonni Springer, Jordan Spry, Pelham Warner, Robert Warnsley, Kanysha Williams
Creative and Production Team
C. Brian Williams, Founder & Executive Producer, Step Afrika!
Jakari Sherman: Director, Drumfolk
Mfoniso Akpan: Artistic Director, Step Afrika!
Steven M. Allen: Composer
Kenaan M. Quander: Costume Designer
Erik Teague: Mask Designer
Marianne Meadows: Lighting Designer
Patrick Calhoun: Sound Designer
Danielle McBride: Sound Engineer