In 1941, Jacob Lawrence became one of the first black artists to have his work shown in a New York City art gallery, with his powerful Migration Series on display, a sequence of 60 paintings depicting the mass movement of over 5 million African Americans from the rural South to the urban North between World War I and World War II.
Displayed on panels, the paintings were done utilizing tempera, a water-based paint that dries rapidly and to keep the colors consistent. Today, the work is split among the Phillips Collection and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Around 2010, C. Brian Williams, founder and executive director of Step Afrika!, was having a conversation with leaders at the Phillips Collection and mentioned how he was intrigued by the work of Lawrence and wanted to expand upon and find meaning in the panels in a performance-art way. The museum liked the idea and Step Afrika! began figuring out how to make these pieces into a coherent work influenced by the art.
Spearheaded by Jakari Sherman, the company’s artistic director and choreographer, Step Afrika! Performed Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence in 2011 to critical acclaim, with an interdisciplinary work that included lightning-fast claps, intricate footwork, percussive chants and perfect synchronicity.
“It’s about celebrating and pushing forward this tradition of stepping. In our normal tour show we travel around the world to highlight the workings of stepping—sorority and fraternity culture—and that’s a part of the mission of Step Afrika!,” Sherman says. “The Migration combines that tradition with many other musical forms and dance forms. The show pays homage to all of those brave people that made that transition.”
The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence
Produced by StepAfrika!
June 8 – 17, 2018
Details and tickets
The show has gone out on tour, including a sold-out, three-week, Off-Broadway run, and now, seven years after that first performance, Step Afrika! brings an updated and revised show back to D.C., with scheduled performances June 8-17 at the Hartke Theatre.
“We have a lot of beautiful dancers who joined the cast who weren’t with us in the original cast. We have a great collection of talent and skills on our stage,” Sherman says. “Since we started this process in 2011, we’ve had a chance to really refine the work and dive deeper into the research. It’s been a blessing that we could remount the work and revisit it.”
In the beginning, while Sherman was familiar with the artist’s work, he was not as intimate with it as he has since become. Even touring the show, Sherman continued to learn a lot about Lawrence and his work, and heard from many audience members about their own personal migration story and where their families came from.
“I think that has really enriched the story, added a lot of texture and given an even deeper meaning to the show,” Sherman says. “The thing about this show is that it taps into something that is familiar to all of us. As Americans, we all have a migration story and a story about how we got to where we are and how our families have moved from one place to another.”
One of the things Sherman learned about Lawrence—which he feels has influenced the work and touched him the most—is that when he painted the series, the artist applied one hue at a time to every painting, meaning he did all 60 pieces of the series at the same time. For instance, he would put red in every painting where he thought it needed to be and then move on to another color.
“That really connected with me because I felt like there must have been a lot of purpose or vision to be able to see where the series was going and how each color could be represented,” Sherman says. “I have tried to capture some of that process in the creation of this work. A lot of the pieces are pieces Step Afrika! was already working on; things that lent itself to the migration. And in order to be a cohesive narrative, I needed to approach it with a sense of purpose.”
The performance blends body percussion, dance, spoken word, projected images of Lawrence’s paintings and live music to chart the story of African-American migrants moving from the South to the North. And just as in the pieces of art, there’s so much vibrancy going on in the show. There are gospel singers, live jazz musicians, tap dancers, and elongated movements that come from a modern dance element.
“For those who saw this in D.C. at the start, I think they will find a new texture that’s been added as we’ve been running this show for a number of years,” Sherman says. “And they will enjoy the familiar art form of stepping.”
As the director of it all, Sherman needed to make sure he wasn’t taking away from the 30 panels utilized throughout the performance and still have all this choreographed action going on.
“There’s a lot of different ways to appreciate the paintings aesthetically and I tried to incorporate them in various ways; sometimes we might be focusing in on the beautiful color palette, or sometimes we’re honing in on the visual motifs, whether it be a bowl of cotton or the wooden homes people left,” he says. “Sometimes we are looking at the panels as a whole and what each one may have represented. Hopefully, we are capturing the breath of what Jacob Lawrence was trying to create with the series.”