Theatre Review: Step Afrika!’s ‘The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence’ at Arena Stage

Posted By: Jeannette Mulherinon for MD Theatre Guide

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

Directed by Jakari Sherman, Step Afrika!’s revival of “The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence” is a glorious synthesis of dance, music, and the visual arts that traces Black Americans’ struggle for freedom and equality, endurance in the face of unspeakable hardship, and the Black community’s contributions to the cultural and artistic life of the nation.

…a glorious synthesis of dance, music, and the visual arts…The cast is simply magnificent.

A form of percussive dance, step dancing is now a global phenomenon that also includes tap, break dancing, and gymnastics, but its roots are found in Africa. Now, in its 30th year, Step Afrika! is a world-class purveyor of the art form. African drumming is the heartbeat of the production, but a flute, saxophone, and a beautifully sung rendition of the spiritual, “Wade in the Water,” also are woven into the story, serving to trace the development of Black music in America.

The beat of African drums appears to summon the people depicted in artist Jacob Lawrence’s “The Migration Series” to step out of the paintings and tell their story.  From large dance numbers that fill the stage to solo pieces, “The Migration” begins in an African village, travels through the American south, and finally embarks on the journey northward. Throughout the narrative, Lawrence’s paintings materialize behind the dancers. One painting is featured at a time, but in pieces, altering the viewer’s perspective and revealing details that enable a more intimate experience of the art.

The cast is simply magnificent. The dancers exude power and grace, strength and vulnerability while bringing a centuries’ long, epic story to life. Scenic Designer Harlan Penn’s presentation of the paintings works seamlessly to both feature Lawrence’s work and support the action. Costume Designer Kenann Quander chose a palette that drew inspiration from, as well as redirected attention to, the backdrop of revolving paintings.

Within the broader theme of migration, historical events are woven into the narrative. In a particularly powerful moment, the dancers allude to the Stono Rebellion of 1739, an uprising of enslaved people that began with drumming and ended with a ban on drums. That also drove stepping, as the enslaved replaced the drums with their own bodies.

This production is nothing less than a celebration of the human spirit and the profound contributions of African Americans to a land still struggling to fulfill its promise of liberty and justice for all.  In the midst of that struggle, “The Migration” assures us that “They can take away the drums, but they cannot stop the beat.”

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

Step Afrika!’s “The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence” runs through July 14, 2024, in the Kreeger Theatre at Arena Stage, 651 Maine Avenue SW, Washington, D.C. 20024.  For more information and to purchase tickets, go online. Read our ‘A Quick 5’ interview with C. Brian Williams, Founder and Executive Producer of Step Afrika! here.