“This is how I approach Blackness: It’s celebratory…It’s something that I don’t want to move away from, I want to move closer to.” E. Ethelbert Miller, Washington, DC-based poet activist
The internationally renowned and celebrated Step Afrika!, specializes in stepping: “a percussive, highly-energetic art form..[in which] the body becomes an instrument, using footsteps, claps and spoken word.” As the first professional Company dedicated to the tradition of stepping, over the past 25 years Step Afrika has sought to expand the aesthetic possibilities of its chosen form. With it’s presentation of the Migration Series a few years ago, the company made a moving and illuminating bid to be spoken of in the same breath as Alvin Ailey and Katherine Dunham. And like the legendary Sweet Honey in the Rock, they are ours. They represent what the people of Washington, DC are to the rest of the world.
Staged in an arena format, there is no fourth wall in this production. The show takes place in seven scenes that explore through the athletic, forceful percussive form of Stepping, the typical ways Americans enjoy and are challenged by winter. The performers are young, athletic and attractive. The energy with which they perform is breathtaking. The rhythms percussed by the dancers are so sharp you might think you could cut yourself on them. The steps they perform are often jaw-dropping and mind boggling and always to delightful and inspiring effect. It’s an example of what discipline and dedication to craft can do.
Step Afrika!’s Magical Musical Holiday Step Show closes December 22, 2019.
DCTS details and tickets
In addition to showcasing the almost gravity defying feats that the members of Step Afrika! perform, this annual ritual also touches the heart and generates community and empowerment among its audience in a profound way. If the ritual that is the oratorio called L’Enfance du Christ (which I saw recently) calls us to acknowledge our complicity in the terror being perpetrated by the state in our name, then Step Afrika!’s current ritual, Magical Musical Holiday Step Show, by contrast, calls us to remember and acknowledge our inherent capacity to summon joy and our responsibility to do so when the season and our lives seem the darkest and most hopeless.
That is not hyperbole. The company uses every stratagem they can think of to pull the audience out of its urban, 21st century isolation and into communion with the people around them. If you don’t dance, you will clap your hands and tap – no, stomp – your feet. If you do none of that you will scream with delight and smile at having been surprised by a brilliant move or fascinating rhythm.
There are very few spaces in this rapidly gentrifying city where people of all races can gather and all feel as though they were born part of the family for which the space has been prepared. But Step Afrika! creates one of those places. From the way the audience holds and shares the common space for each other, even before the show starts, there is no doubt that this place is home.
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And while Step Afrika!’s holiday celebration is pointedly about inclusion along all the possible axes of being human, the core axis of humanity in this show is expressed in a form that is African, Black and universal. Many of the Black people in the audience know this music like the air they breathe and respond to it with sighs of recognition, affirmation and relief. Everyone else may recognize it as the music they have heard all of their lives, and as an inescapable inheritance that identifies them as American.
This is a show where all generations of people get to share the enjoyment of recognizing their humanity in a season of cold and wet. (It snows in this show.) And the children – the children (and many adults) – were all enraptured. If you don’t know any children, find some and take them to see this show. You will be glad you did. It will be like the song “Sleigh Ride” says: “Those wonderful things are the things we remember all through our lives.”
Step Afrika! Magical Musical Holiday Step Show. Created by Step Afrika! . Directed by Mfoniso Akpan. Cast: Jeeda Barrington, Deatrice Clark, Matthew Evans, Emerald Holman, Conrad Kelly, Misha Michel, Vincent Montgomery, Ronnique Murray, Dustin Praylow, Ajah Smith, Valencia Springer, Jordan Spry, Nick Stewart, Pelham Warner, Robert Warnsley, Ta’Quez Whitted. Sound Designer: Chris Lane. Lighting Designer: Marianne Meadows. Costume Designer: Paris Francesca. Scenic Painter: Kelly Rowan. Production Manager: Simone Baskerville. Assistant Production Manager: Kyle M. Dill. Sound Engineer: April Sturdivant. Lighting Board Operator: Kiman Mickens. Production Assistant: Joe Murchinson. DJ Nutcracker: Jeda Barrington.Stage Manager: Kaycee Tucker. Assistant Stage Managers: Autumn Mitchell & Aitana Garrison. Reviewed by Gregory Ford.