Shortly after C. Brian Williams founded D.C.-based Step Afrika! in 1994, the dance troupe quickly emerged as the first professional company dedicated to the historic tradition of stepping — a percussive dance style particularly familiar with those who have “crossed the burning sands” and become proud members of America’s Black fraternities or sororities.
Now, after a highly-acclaimed U.S. tour that included a stint on Broadway, the company has returned home to close out its current season with “The Migration: Reflections: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence,” a multimedia production which can be seen through Sunday at the Hartke Theatre on the campus of Catholic University of America in Northeast.
The creative force behind both the company and its current production, Artistic Director Jakari Sherman, stands as one long committed to the African-American tradition of stepping, pushing the boundaries of percussive dance as a medium of communication while utilizing technology, storytelling and diverse musical scores in order to challenge more conventional paradigms.
He says using Lawrence’s landmark collection of paintings as the inspiration and backdrop for a project that employs contemporary dance, stepping, body percussion and multiple music genres to illustrate the story of those Blacks who moved from the rural south to the urban north in the 1900s, challenged his creative abilities, ultimately bringing him great personal satisfaction.
“It’s been a great opportunity to use his beautiful work, integrating as much of it as possible into the choreography while curating the music and other forms of movement together in a seamless way,” he said. “We wanted to pay homage to those who sought better living conditions while staying true to their stories and hopefully helping others connect to their own migration narratives.”
“From the west to east coast and even under the lights of Times Square, we’ve had a tremendous run,” said Sherman, who splits his time between Houston and the District.
“We’re helping people understand the power of the story behind Lawrence’s work while also representing a portion of African-American culture — the culture of Black Greek organizations as shared through the art of stepping. Stepping continues to maintain a significant place in the long family of percussive traditions and as an expressive form, it tells many stories and illustrates multiple examples of motion.”
“As for Lawrence’s ‘Migration,’ the story he tells through his 60 carefully-crafted panels, 20 of which we use and project on stage during the production, is simply beautiful,” he said.
After seeing the show on opening night, I found myself agreeing with Sherman who, during an earlier conversation, said he found the ‘Wade Suite’ to be among his favorite parts of the production. From my perspective, it was incredibly choreographed and employed some of the most emotionally-moving songs from among the canon of Negro spirituals all of which were admirable performed by a quartet of vocalists — and with each individual element of the production fitting to perfection with Lawrence’s distinctive panels as they continued to be displayed and changed throughout the show.
As for the dancers, not only do they combine their talent to display a seamless blend of styles of movements including tap, stepping and centuries-old African dances but, as in the “Wade Suite,” use those spirituals that now serve as the lifeblood of the Black church, performed by an ensemble of four outstanding singers.”
Sherman says the spirituals evoke a resonance and power by themselves alone.
“Remember our ancestors used the spirituals to get over and through unbelievable pain, to communicate ideas to others and to provide a sense of hope and unity — holding on to the messages of those songs as a means of making it just a little easier to deal with the tumultuous atrocities that were forced to handle.”
Still, in a few portions of the almost two-hour production, there were times when the intended connections between the dance, the music and the panels became more difficult to discern. In those instances, an omniscient narrator may have been helpful.
However, even while I sometimes had to stretch beyond my more comfortable levels of discernment to make the connections, the intricacy of the choreography as showcased by a talented cadre of dancers and the conversations told by the drummers as they moved from performing in unison to intricate rhythms to then pounding out more syncopated, punctuating beat, merged as I could only imagine life as experienced by our ancestors on the shores of their native Africa and later in a foreign place dominated by pain, humiliation and despair.
Sherman shared more about Lawrence’s motivation while painting his iconic series — one which he, incidentally, began to craft when just 22 years old.
“He mixed colors one at a time and with all 60 of his panels laid out, would paint only one color at a time before moving to another,” he said. “That means he had to have vision, purpose and foresight before he even picked up his brush. As I and the other choreographers developed the production, we also felt the need to maintain a strong sense of purpose.”
“Then, we had the good fortune of working with so many talented dancers who trace their roots to places from all over the world and who have learned so many styles of dance — movement which feeds off of the music with sounds and beats that almost force you to move. In the final result, I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve accomplished,” Sherman said.
Editor’s Note: I urge our readers to see this tremendous show for themselves but warn you to hold onto your hats and be prepared for your hearts and souls to soar.
As Richard Wright once said while reflecting upon his journey from the south to the north, “I was taking a part of the south to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the arms of other suns, and, perhaps, to bloom.”