The inspiring triumph of Step Afrika!’s ‘The Migration’ at Arena Stage

Based on paintings by Jacob Lawrence, the dance work is a dynamic intersection of the visual and performing arts that is impossible to forget.

The team at Arena Stage and Step Afrika! is stepping up a storm. Listen intently and be amazed at the resilience of the African American spirit. From the arrival of slave traders on the continent to the Antebellum period, all the way to modern times, two things are consistent: change and triumph.

The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence is based on a 60-panel artwork created by Jacob Lawrence between 1940 and 1941. His work details the journey of African Americans who, between 1910 and the 1940s, fled in millions from the Deep South — Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana — where they faced segregation, lynchings, floods, boll weevil attacks on cotton, and other harsh conditions. They moved to the North and settled in cities such as St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Chicago. Despite the North’s fair share of troubles — limited housing, tuberculosis, racial tensions, and prejudice — it offered greater educational and work opportunities to African Americans.

Step Afrika!’s company performs The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence. Photo by Jati Lindsay.

The Migration presents a dynamic intersection of the visual and performing arts that is impossible to forget. Director Jakari Sherman with Step Afrika! artistic director Mfoniso Akpan first staged The Migration 12 years ago based on 30 panels in the Lawrence collection; this is the first run to include all 60, projected overhead while the dances and musical numbers unfold on stage. With scenic design by Harlan Penn and original sound design by Patrick Calhoun, The Migration now at Arena is just as invigorating as it is new and improved.

The attention-grabbing opening number is “Drum Call,” choreographed/composed by Jakari Sherman and W.E. Smith. At first, all is pitch-black, and then we see a ray of light break through horizontally above the dancers. About ten drummers are positioned on stage, women in the front and men in the back. They look and stare intently (perhaps at the great change ahead with the arrival of slave traders), expressionless, and not even once looking down at the drums that they strike passionately, militantly, with increasing tempo. They are barefoot, the women in headwraps and the men bare-chested in pants. Sound Designer Calhoun and Lighting Designer Marianne Meadows did an amazing job with the sound effects and visuals of thunder and lightning, intensifying the tumultuous beats of the drums that signify the chaotic, calamitous arrival of foreign ships in African towns and the devastating consequences.

Step Afrika!’s company performs The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence. Photos by Jati Lindsay.

Drumfolk,” choreographed by David Pleasant, showcases the hardships that enslaved Africans faced in the South. This number includes “spirituals, field hollers, and shouts.” In this particular scene, one of the principal dancers held a talisman that was pointed in different directions at the audience and then in a circular motion over the head of another on stage. The Afro-spiritual dance moves in this number are reminiscent of those of the Candomblé and other practices in which dance and drums were used to connect slaves from Africa to their native orishas/gods and find spiritual relief from their earthly troubles when a physical escape other than death was impossible.

The stage returns to pitch-black, and a spotlight draws our attention to Lawrence’s panel #15 titled “There were lynchings.” This poignant art piece is reflective of the emotional and physical turmoils that African Americans endured in the South. At this moment, a lady appears upstage right and begins to sing “Wade in the Water,” originally sung by Ella Jenkins. The song, the art, the dance showcase a change from Afro-spiritualism/voodoo to the church and Christianity as a support for African Americans. Depicting “the importance of the church helping African Americans survive the South, and its critical role in helping vulnerable migrants resettle in the North” were Panel #4 “They were very poor”; Panel #11 “Food had doubled in price because of the war”; Panel #54 “For migrants, the church was the center of life”; and Panel #17 “Tenant farmers received harsh treatment at the hands of planters.”

At some point, there came another change for African Americans to endure in the South: they had to survive without drums. The Negro Act of 1740  made it illegal for African Americans to gather to beat drums, use horns, or other loud instruments. “They took away our drums” is repeated at least ten times in the number “Wade Suite” (choreographed by Kirsten Ledford, LeeAnét Noble, and Paul Woodruff with vocals by Ariel Dykes, Briona Jackson, Greg Watkins, and Kanysha Williams) — “But they could not stop the beat.” Thanks to Costume Designer Kenann Quander, we were taken to a full praise break with the ladies dressed in beautiful southern dresses and hats in an array of styles and colors, and the men in dress pants, button-ups, and suit vests. This number signifies the triumph of African Americans in making music using sticks, tap dancing, gumboots, tambourines, their bodies, hands, and even their breath, which was often featured and heard as part of the choreography and vocals to keep music alive.

The second half of the show focuses on the great migration that happened between 1910 and 1940 and is the subject of Lawrence’s 60-panel series. In “Trane Suite” (originally recorded by W.E. Smith), Scenic Designer Penn takes us to a busy train station. Lionel B. Lyles II is upstage right playing beautifully the saxophone with his money hat on the floor next to him. Not far from that is a bench on which a lady sits with her back to us cradling a baby. We see Panel #5’s stunning imagery of a train in motion with the headlight on full blast. The image is further enhanced with Sound Designer Calhoun’s immersive sound effects of train horns and its wheels swishing past. This time Quander has the beautiful ladies in green, pink, yellow, and red sleeveless dresses.

In “Off the Train,” Jakari Sherman’s choreography has three gentlemen dazzle and razzle in suave step moves with their luggage. Just arriving in the North and thrilled with the possibilities, they get an uproar from the audience (“YA’LL BETTER COM’ON NOW!” and “That’s how you do it!”) as with effortless precision they pick up and put down the luggage, move across the stage in sync or succession, and switch the luggage from prop to stomping pulpit to tap upon. Amazing.

Overall, costume designer Kennan Quander deserves all their flowers. The rest of the numbers show tremendous skill and attention to detail in creating 3D human replicas of Lawrence’s paintings. In “My Man’s Gone Now” (with choreography by Mfoniso Akpan, Aseelah Alien, Dionne Eleby, Kevin Marr, and Jakari Sherman), we see a lady on stage replicating Panel #57 dressed in all white from head to toe, holding a stick and keeping the same posture in the painting. This demographic was last to move North since men often left first before sending for their wives and children. In Panel #53, we see a stunning Black woman on stage in a gorgeous dress similar to that patterned in Lawrence’s image, along with a fur boa and hat with feather arm-in-arm with a man dressed in a suit and a top hat. We see a recreation of Panel #55 in which three figures in black hats and coats carry a coffin with heads bowed,  a reference to the deaths from tuberculosis in the North, then later on, figures carrying protest signs saying “Free the Scottsboro boys.” The figures on stage are dressed in the color scheme of Lawrence’s series: yellows, reds, blues, greens, and blacks.

This production not only went back to the forced migration of Africans to the United States as slaves but goes beyond Lawrence’s depictions into the future. In doing so, it paints an exceptional and compelling story of consistent change and triumph. In “Chicago,” choreographed by Jakari Sherman, we see an array of African Americans thriving in all given spheres and sectors of the North and “planting their buckets where they are” in the words of Booker T. Washington. Thanks to Quander, we see migrants as conductors, nurses, shoe peddlers, dancers, musicians, athletes, we see families, and so much more. If we go a bit further into the future, we would see an African American as a president of the United States and a woman who grew up in the South Side of Chicago where migrants settled during the great migration, as the first lady of the United States as well.

Change and triumph is the recurring theme/running thread in African American history in the United States. It is also one that Step Afrika! confidently helps us believe will continue for years to come.

Running Time: Approximately one hour 30 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.

The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence plays through July 14, 2024, presented by Step Afrika! performing in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage, 1101 6th Street SW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($45–$115) may be obtained online, by phone at 202-488-3300, or in person at the Sales Office (Tuesday-Sunday, 12-8 p.m.). Arena Stage offers savings programs including “pay your age” tickets for those aged 30 and under, student discounts, and “Southwest Nights” for those living and working in the District’s Southwest neighborhood. To learn more, visit arenastage.org/savings-programs.

The program for The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence is downloadable here.

COVID Safety: Arena Stage recommends but does not require that patrons wear facial masks in theaters except in designated mask-required performances.. For up-to-date information, visit arenastage.org/safety.

SEE ALSO:
Step Afrika!’s masterpiece ‘The Migration’ returns to DC at Arena Stage (John Stoltenberg’s review of the 2018 production, republished May 27, 2024)

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