Stepping into 30 Years: Step Afrika’s “The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence”


Step Afrika! has evolved significantly since its start as a festival in South Africa in 1994, and even in its 30th year, it retains an energetic celebration of African and African American culture through step dance. Arena Stage’s final production for the 2023/24 season features a revival of their significant piece, “The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence,” now enhanced with high-quality projections of Lawrence’s iconic paintings.

Inspired by Lawrence’s art, “The Migration” is a vibrant journey of movement and music that narrates the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North. This compelling story, marked by moments of joy, sorrow, and resilience, is brought to life through a continuous display of dance, song, and music.

The production masterfully blends various genres, including drum circles, work songs, gospel, spirituals, and jazz, creating a rich historical tapestry. The dance Company’s performance is extraordinary, showcasing remarkable endurance as they meet the demanding acrobatics and complex rhythms with perfect synchronization throughout the 90-minute performance.

The dancing is complemented by exceptional musical performances. Abdou Muhammed captivates with his impressive drumming, Lionel D. Lyles II excels on flute and tenor saxophone, and singers Ariel Dykes, Briona Jackson, Greg Watkins, and Kanysha Williams deliver a soul-stirring finale to the first act.

Director Jakari Sherman skillfully unifies the various choreographic pieces into a cohesive whole, with one of the standout moments being his own piece, “Off the Train,” a creative dance involving three men and their luggage. Harlan Penn’s scenic design is both thoughtful and engaging, evolving with the narrative while keeping the stage open for the dancers.

This production balances exuberance with a poignant reflection on historical and contemporary realities. The storyline, tracing the journey from freedom to enslavement and back, acknowledges the deep-seated issues from which African American dance and music have arisen and celebrates the triumphant reclaiming of these cultural elements.

Stepping, rooted in African traditions, has grown into a global phenomenon encompassing tap, breakdancing, and gymnastics. In its 30th year, Step Afrika! has become a premier exponent of this art form. African drumming is the heartbeat of the show, accompanied by flute, saxophone, and a beautifully sung rendition of “Wade in the Water,” which traces the development of Black music in America.

The narrative begins in an African village, moves through the American South, and finally embarks on the journey northward. Lawrence’s paintings come to life behind the dancers, each painting revealed in pieces to offer a more intimate experience. The dancers, exuding power and grace, bring this epic story to life, supported by Kenann Quander’s costumes that draw inspiration from the paintings.

Historical events are woven into the narrative, such as the Stono Rebellion of 1739, highlighting the resilience of the human spirit. Despite the hardships depicted, the production celebrates the profound contributions of African Americans to a nation still striving to fulfill its promise of liberty and justice for all. “The Migration” assures us that while drums may be taken away, the beat cannot be stopped.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

Step Afrika!’s “The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence” runs through July 14, 2024, at the Kreeger Theatre, Arena Stage, Washington, D.C. For more information and tickets, visit the Arena Stage website.