An 18th-century rebellion drives the beat in Step Afrika’s ‘Drumfolk’ at Arts Emerson
“Ever since that moment, Africans began to use their body as the drum,”says Step Afrika! founder C. Brian Williams
By Karen Campbell Globe Correspondent, Boston Globe
Updated September 9, 2022
“They took the drums away, but they could not stop the beat.” That chanted refrain is the crux of “Drumfolk,” the latest production by Step Afrika!, which kicks off ArtsEmerson’s 2022-23 season Oct. 5-16. Through movement, theater, and music, the family-friendly show traces the evolution of a culture, shining a spotlight on key moments of African-American history.
“Drumfolk” is a journey of resistance and resilience, inspired by the pivotal but little known 1739 Stono Rebellion. In what was then a British colony in South Carolina, enslaved Africans used the drums — long a means of expression and communication — as a call to action, a means to start an insurrection. The rebellion failed, but in response, the Negro Act of 1740 was passed, further restricting the rights of the enslaved — including their use of drums. But they refused to be silenced. “Ever since that moment,” says Step Afrika! founder and executive producer C. Brian Williams, “Africans began to use their body as the drum.” The event marked a cultural turning point leading to the development of new percussive forms, from the expansion of body percussion and ring shout, to tap dance, hip-hop, and the style for which Step Afrika! has made its mark, stepping.
When Williams formed Step Afrika! in 1994 while working in Southern Africa, his plan was for a small troupe committed to preserving and promoting the percussive art form popularized by African American fraternities and sororities. (Williams had graduated from Howard University and learned to step himself as a member of the fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha.) Along the way, however, the Washington, D.C.-based company evolved into one of the nation’s largest African-American dance organizations, producing high-energy theatrical shows that blend stepping with older African traditions as well as contemporary art forms, such as social dance and beat boxing. The shows are enthusiastically interactive, inviting the audience to contribute their own energy. “Breaking that fourth wall is essential to the Step Afrika! experience,” Williams says. “When the audience connects, we’re able to create something special, a conversation.”
The award-winning company has toured to more than 60 countries around the world, headlined a Black History Month reception at the White House, and anchored the world’s first stepping interactive exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture. And in June, Williams was chosen for a 2022 NEA National Heritage Fellowship, marking the first time stepping has been fully recognized as a part of America’s artistic heritage and culture. “It’s the culmination of a very long journey,” Williams says, “recognizing how this uniquely American art form helped shape this country.”