‘A Quick 5’ with C. Brian Williams, Founder and Executive Producer of Step Afrika! performing at Arena Stage

Posted By Susan Brall for MD Theatre Guide

The wonderful and world-renowned Step Afrika! will be performing their production, “The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence,” at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theatre beginning on June 7, 2024. Through dance, they tell the story of the mass migration of African Americans from the rural, post-slavery South to the industrial North in hopes of leaving the oppression of Jim Crow and the terror of lynching behind. It is the signature work of artist Jacob Lawrence’s “iconic” 60-panel artwork, “The Migration Series,” done in the early 1940s.  The group uses his images as the means to tell their story.

The company includes Kenneth L. Alexander, Nya Christian, Jerod Coleman, Ariel Dykes, Keomi Givens Jr., Leander Gray, Jordin Greene, Kamala Hargrove, Briona Jackson, Nepri James, Terrence Johnson, Agyei Keita-Edwards, Conrad Kelly II, Lionel D. Lyles II, Abdou Muhammed, Isaiah O’Connor, Na’imah Ray, Valencia Springer, Ericka Still, Brie Turner, Joseph Vasquez, Pelham Warner Jr., Robert Warnsley, Greg Watkins, and Kanysha Williams.

Jakari Sherman directs the show under the leadership of Founder and Executive Director of Step Afrika! C. Brian Williams and their Artistic Director Mfoniso Akpan. The creative crew includes Harlan Penn, Scenic Design; Marianne Meadows, Lighting Design and Production Manager; Kenann Quander, Costume Design; Patrick Calhoun, Sound Design; and Sherman, Production Design.

C. Brian Williams is a native of Houston, Texas, and a graduate of Howard University. Brian first learned to step as a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. – Beta Chapter, in the Spring of 1989. While living in Southern Africa, he began to research the percussive dance tradition of stepping, exploring the many sides of this exciting, yet under-recognized American art form, and founded Step Afrika! in 1994. Williams has performed, lectured, and taught in Europe, Central and South America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and throughout the United States. Through Williams’ leadership, stepping has evolved into one of America’s newest cultural exports and inspired the designation of Step Afrika! as Washington, DC’s official “Cultural Ambassador.”

When did you know you wanted to start your own dance company?
I didn’t realize that I wanted to start a dance company until about six years after the initial founding of Step Afrika! in 1994. Step Afrika! began as an international cultural festival in the historic township of Soweto, just outside Johannesburg, South Africa, and it took me a few years to realize that a dance company was even possible. In fact, Kristen Ledford, a Maryland native and Step Afrika!’s first Artistic Director, is the one who convinced me that a dance company was even viable, and that Step Afrika! could contribute something unique to the dance world. Thirty years later, she was right.

I have always felt there was a very strong tie between Caribbean dance and African dance. In your travels, did you notice a relationship between stepping and the new world dances?
I could do a dissertation on the potential connections between stepping and dances from all around the world! To date, Step Afrika! has been to over 60 countries, from many countries in Central and South America, from Madagascar to Montenegro, from Croatia to Canada. Through these travels, we have shared stepping with thousands of folkloric dancers and they have shared their traditions with us. One of my favorite artistic exchanges was with the powerful dance and music group, Ile Aye, in Salvador, Brazil. The performance we created after only a day or two of rehearsal was extraordinary. I wish someone had recorded that show!

I’ve also noticed how important costumes are in dance. In “The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence” how does the costuming also reflect its story?
I have learned over the years how important costume design can be for any type of production, let alone dance, and Step Afrika! has worked with some amazing costume designers. For “The Migration,” we engaged Modjeska Quander, born and raised in the DMV, to create designs that help tell the story of the Great Migration, when over six million African Americans left the South in search of “the warmth of other suns” (one of my favorite quotes from celebrated author Richard Wright). And now, with our partnership at Arena Stage and their outstanding theater technicians, the costumes for “The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence” are truly something to behold.

Dance can tell a story, it can reflect culture, and it can express personal feelings. How do you incorporate each in your production?
Telling a story is not always the focus of Step Afrika!’s work. Sometimes, we like to just simply enjoy the movement or dance style, and share our pure love for dance with an audience. But, for “The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence,” the story of these African-American migrants leaving the South was so inspiring. We also had the stunning art work of Jacob Lawrence, one of America’s greatest artists, to guide us. You can see Lawrence’s “Migration Series” at The Phillips Collection here in DC. I would strongly recommend going to see both the paintings and Step Afrika!’s interpretation of these works live on stage.

Are you working on a new production or have any ideas for one?
Well, first we have to deliver over 40 amazing shows of “The Migration” at Arena Stage! This will be the longest performance run in Step Afrika!’s history so we have engaged 20 dancers, three singers, two percussionists, and a saxophonist, so that we can give our audiences an amazing experience each now. But after “The Migration,” all roads lead to the culminating performance of our 30th Anniversary at the Strathmore in June 2025. We are planning for several world premieres that will be incredibly exciting. One work in particular will be our first true merger of percussive dance with contemporary movement practices. I can’t wait to get into the dance studios with the artists and watch that collaborative process give birth to something fresh and new. Rehearsals start for those performances in August 2024.

Step Afrika!’s “The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence” will be running through July 14, 2024 at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theatre, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, DC 20024. For information and to purchase tickets, go online. For information about Step Afrika! go to their website.