The painter Jacob Lawrence’s 60-panel Migration Series chronicles the exodus of more than six million African-Americans from the South to the North starting around 1916. The WPA-funded project was published in 1941 when he was 25.
Step Afrika!, D.C.’s home-grown step dance company, takes spirited inspiration from these works in The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, at Catholic University’s Hartke Theatre. Directed by Jakari Sherman, The Migration is a family show in the best sense, illuminating visual, choreographic, and musical traditions without an ounce of condescension or didacticism. For kids, the bare outline of the story, the kinetic fireworks of the dance, and the exhilarating rhythms of the drums will be absorbing. For adults, the connections to Lawrence’s paintings and the history they represent, of tribulations entangled with hope, will trigger bittersweet emotions on a deeper level too.
“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.” We talk with Migration director Jakari Sherman
The evening’s richness derives from the company’s taking the notion of migration back a couple centuries: to African drum calls and the way music and dance traditions evolved among the enslaved in America, particularly when 18th-century laws stripped them of their rights to read, write, and play drums. “They took our drums away,” the company chants, “but they could not stop the beat.”
This Act I material contextualizes Lawrence’s paintings as well as the jazz-centered Act II, which focuses on the migration itself, the women sometimes left behind to care for their families as their men ventured north, and the sassy, saucy city beats that swept up the newcomers to Chicago.
This broad historical approach allows the company to mix fraternity- and sorority-style stepping with African tribal, South African Gumboot, tap, jazz, and modern dance. These are accompanied, atop some taped tracks, by sensational drumming (especially by djembe player Kofi Agyei), soul-caressing saxophone from Lionel B. Lyles II, and gripping gospel vocals.
The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence
closes June 17, 2018
Details and tickets
Lighting and projection designer John D. Alexander beams Lawrence’s images in whole or in detail onto five screens at a scale, thanks to Harlan Penn’s scenic design, that complements without overwhelming the action on the stage or being diminished by it. Seeing the paintings at the Phillips or MoMA in contemplative stillness and studying them on the web assimilates them into the mind and heart in a particular way. But true to the production’s subtitle, Step Afrika!’s are performative reflections, and the manner in which the sound and movement jibe with Lawrence’s tautly geometric peopled landscapes, cityscapes, and train routes makes his art spring to a different kind of vigorous life.
Kenaan Quander’s wonderfully varied costumes range from African tribal to hardscrabble Southern cottons to citified street duds. Patrick Calhoun’s and Kevin Alexander’s sound design and engineering, respectively, are excellent, floor mics capturing the step and tap beats robustly, and an array of stage, body, and standing mics balancing the percussion, taped tracks, vocals, chants, and shouts.
Stepping has its own delirious delights, but I hope Step Afrika! will also continue this sort of ingenious combining of styles, maybe even sometimes in collaboration with other companies. And why stop at tap, jazz, and modern? Imagine ballet or flamenco or avant-garde Butoh techniques pulled into this cosmopolitan company’s orbit. Once you start thinking along those lines, the possibilities are dizzying: an African-American Sleeping Beauty, for instance, to an original jazz score, or a futuristic step-steeped horror tale with an on-stage DJ playing electronica.
Returning to D.C. from an American tour, The Migration, company founder and executive director C. Brian Williams told Friday’s opening-night audience, will be shelved for a while after this production. Step Afrika!, approaching its 25th anniversary, has new works and worlds to conquer. But this run continues through June 17. If you step lively, you can still catch it.
The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, presented by Step Afrika!, directed by Jakari Sherman, at Catholic University’ Hartke Theatre through June 17. Featuring Mfoniso Akpan, Dionne Eleby, Kara Jenelle, Jabari Jones, Corad Kelly, Joe Murchison, Ronnique Murray, Anesia Sandifer, Jakari Sherman, Brittny Smith, Jordan Spry, Ta’quez Whitted, Matthew Evans, Vincent Montgomery, Olabode “Buddie” Oladeinde, and Jerel L. Williams. With special musical guests Kofi Agyei, Lionel B. Lyles II, Ryan Collins, and Roy Patton. Scenic design: Harlan Penn. Costume design: Kenaan Quander. Lighting and projection design: John D. Alexander. Sound design: Patrick Calhoun. Sound engineer: Kevin Alexander. Production and company manager: John D. Alexander. Reviewed by Alexander C. Kafka.