Review: THE MIGRATION at Arena Stage

Jacob Lawrence’s paintings, and their history, come to life in radically thrilling display.

By: Jun. 08, 2024
Review: THE MIGRATION at Arena Stage
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Step Afrika! may have come a long way since its origins as a festival in South Africa back in 1994, but even in its 30th anniversary continues to feel fresh and buoyantly youthful in its celebration of African and African American culture and step dance. For the final production of Arena Stage’s 2023/24 season, Step Afrika! is reprising their monumental work The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, which is now elevated by high quality projections of the landmark African American artist’s paintings.  

Inspired by Lawrence’s work, The Migration is an odyssey of movement and music that follows the decades-long migration of millions of African Americans from the south to the north. This remarkable narrative—sometimes joyous, sometimes somber, but always defiant—is brought to life by a non-stop display of dancing, singing, and musicianship.

Review: THE MIGRATION at Arena Stage
Step Afrika!’s company performs The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence. Photo by Jati Lindsay.

Somehow simultaneously cohesive and also shockingly wide-reaching in its diversity and breadth, The Migration’s historical travelogue covers a series of distinct genres and stylings including drum circles, work songs, gospel and spirituals, and jazz. The dance troupe gives it their absolute all, showing off inhuman stamina as they weather the performance’s acrobatic and polyrhythmic demands in perfect sync for the full 90-minute runtime.

The dancing is augmented by some virtuosic musical performances. Abdou Muhammed steals the show for quite a chunk of time with his incredible drumming, Lionel D. Lyles II wows first on flute and then tenor saxophone, and singers Ariel Dykes, Briona Jackson, Greg Watkins, and Kanysha Williams devastate with a heart-wrenchingly soulful first act finale.  

Director Jakari Sherman creates a common world and language that bridge together the works of the many choreographers responsible for the pieces that make up The Migration, though one of the biggest highlights of the night is his own work on “Off the Train,” an ingenious piece of dance involving three men and their luggage. Harlan Penn’s scenic design is thoughtful and inviting, delicately evolving with the story while always leaving the majority of the stage free for the dancers.

Review: THE MIGRATION at Arena Stage
Step Afrika!’s company performs The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence. Photo by Jati Lindsay.

There’s no doubt a tremendous sense of fun to this piece, but also an ongoing necessity to it. The exuberance of The Migration never obfuscates the grim realities, both historical and contemporary, that inform it. In a storyline that traces the difficult steps from freedom to enslavement and back again, there’s an acknowledgement of the deep-rooted ills from which African American dance and music have grown, followed by a triumphant reclaiming of those cultural tenets.

It’s no longer any secret that many of America’s most celebrated white choreographers passed off the work of African American dancers as their own. When so much of our theater’s history is steeped in such exploitation it only serves to emphasize the importance of the work that Step Afrika! and Arena do. The migration may be centuries long, full of unimaginable hardships, and still ongoing, but there are few victories as sweet as a production like this one, in which bodies are freer than ever to own their stories and tell their truths.

The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence runs through July 14, 2024 at Arena Stage. Performances are approximately 90 minutes including one 15-minute intermission.




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