Review: Step Afrika! Pays Tribute to Jacob Lawrence in THE MIGRATION

By: Nov. 13, 2017
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Step Afrika!'s latest show at The New Victory Theater, THE MIGRATION: REFLECTIONS ON JACOB LAWRENCE, is an exciting and moving chronicle of the migration of Africans from their villages to the American south and then to more northern cities like Chicago in the 1920s.

Step Afrika! performs rhythmic step dancing that primarily consists of stomping and intricate hand-clapping. In THE MIGRATION, however, the company includes traditional African dance, South African Gumboot dance, tap, and modern dance reminiscent of Alvin Ailey. The show provides a visceral history that covers the gamut of emotions from deep sorrow to joyous celebration.

Directed by Jakari Sherman, THE MIGRATION was inspired by artist Jacob Lawrence, whose 60 colorful paintings in the 1940s documented the migration of African Americans in the early 20th century. Five projections of portions of the paintings provided the backdrop for the dancers during the show. The screens were of varying sizes, and the projections changed throughout the evening.

Besides drums, the dancers were accompanied at various times throughout the show by Kofi Agyei on the djembe drum, Lionel D. Lyles II on the flute and saxophone, and singers Christopher McCrewell, Jasmine Muhammad, Lydia Warr, and Brittny Smith. On lead vocals, Smith took us to church with her stirring and soaring voice as the group performed traditional African American spirituals.

In one number called "Drumfolk," the dancers elicited audience participation, as we clapped along to the specified rhythms. They also asked us to chant "They took the drums away" followed by "But they could not stop the beat." The piece refers to the Negro Act of 1740, which robbed Africans of the right to beat drums. Step dancing is a testament to the fact that rhythms can still be created without instruments.

While most of the music was created on stage, a particularly memorable piece was danced to Nina Simone's recording of "My Man's Gone Now." During the Great Migration of African-Americans, men often left their families behind until they could make enough money to bring their wives and children up north as well. The standout in this piece was Ronnique Murray, who showed off her classical ballet training and long legs that brought Judith Jamison to mind.

THE MIGRATION is a history in dance and music that honors past generations of Africans and African Americans, as well as the artistry of Jacob Lawrence, while providing audiences with a thrilling show. Suitable for all ages, the show brought the audience to their feet at the performance I attended on November 12th .

THE MIGRATION continues at the New Victory Theater through November 26, 2017.

PHOTO CREDIT: William Perrigen