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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 24, 2017 - Volume 45 Issue 08
Step Afrika! presents brilliant reflection on Jacob Lawrence's 'The Migration Series'
Arts & Entertainment
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Step Afrika! presents brilliant reflection on Jacob Lawrence's 'The Migration Series'

by Sharon Cumberland - SGN Contributing Writer

STEP AFRIKA! DANCE TROUPE
'THE MIGRATION:
REFLECTIONS ON JACOB LAWRENCE'
MEANY CENTER
FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS
February 18


At the risk of sounding like I'm on the payroll, which I'm not, Step Afrika! was in the top 1% of everything I've seen at the UW World Dance/Meany Center for the Performing Arts in the last 20 years that I've been attending. The combination of drumming, dancing, history and visual arts was stunning. My subscription buddy and I just stared at each other in wonder. Every time you think you've seen it all, you see something new that confirms your faith in humankind.

When I say 'something new' I mean 'new to me.' I'd heard of 'stepping' or 'African step dance,' but being a WPOGW (that means 'white person of good will' to quote MLK), I didn't really have the concept. I thought it was a kind of sassy strut, like the cake walk, or a 'steppin' out with my baby' kind of walk, but no....it's something else entirely. 'Step dancing,' to quote the Wiki Brain, 'is a form of percussive dance in which the participant's entire body is used as an instrument to produce complex rhythms and sounds through a mixture of footsteps spoken word, and hand claps.' And when ten or eleven men and women are performing complex patterns using their bodies as both music and dance - simultaneously and in domino-falling sequences - the effect is thrilling.

This particular group of dances is inspired by artist Jacob Lawrence's 60 tempura-on-wood panels called 'The Migration Series,' which track the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural south to the industrial north. On five screens of various sizes, several of Lawrence's images are projected in full and in detail to represent the historical moments each dance depicts. Choreographer Jakari Sherman is responsible for four of the nine dances, but I was impressed by the shared nature of the choreography, which involves nine additional dancers. This is not a company driven by one mastermind, but a community from which music and dance arises. The historical moments depicted range from the first kidnappings from African villages, to slavery in the Deep South, to the spread of African drum and dancing traditions throughout the New World. The image of a locomotive begins to dominate as the migration moves away from Jim Crow country to the north, ending in the Chicago of the 1920s. Although the Great Migration started in 1910 and ended in 1970, Jacob Lawrence painted his masterwork in 1940, when more than 1.5 million African Americans had already migrated from the South to the North.

The first scene of this marvelous evening began when the stage lights came up on a group of eleven men and women, each with one of several varieties of drum. They were tapping so softly that it sounded like rain, but the sound built steadily into a torrent, which morphed again in to rhythmic stepping and drumming until it sounded as though the drums were having a dramatic and important conversation. This was an African village, representing the moment when slave ships appeared to steal people from their homes. As dancers raced across the stage in horror, the drummers' arms rose and fell like an army of warning and despair. This opening scene gave me chills - first of excitement, then of dismay. Step Afrika! director Jakari Sherman was clever in starting the story during slavery times so that the courage and determination that step dancing so clearly expresses would have the necessary context. Step dancing is not just entertainment, or even entertainment with a message. It's entertainment that encapsulates the spirit of an abused and triumphant people who overcame - and continue to overcome - the worst offenses of racism.

The audience was treated again and again to the perfect integration of Jacob Lawrence's paintings with an historical moment and a form of dance. For instance, a section called the 'Wade Suite' features a church trio singing the spiritual 'Wade in the Water' as a preacher and a congregation use the range of stepping and slapping techniques - including 'gumboot' slapping of hands against the sides of boots - to express faith in God as well as the promise of God's justice: 'God's going to trouble the waters...' This, together with Lawrence's image of four people following the silhouette of birds flying freely across the sky was another moment that gave me chills. It conveyed in sound, images, and movement the complex idea of freedom: the longing for freedom, the higher power that promises freedom, and the action of people who know that 'God helps those who help themselves.'

Lawrence - a Seattle favorite son ever since he came to the UW to teach art in 1971 - would be 100 years old this year, and both the Meany Center for the Performing Arts and the Seattle Art Museum are celebrating by coordinating Step Afrika!'s 'The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence' with the special exhibit of all 60 of the panels that inspired the dance. Since half of these panels belong to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and the other half belong to the Philips Collection in Washington D.C., it was no small feat to get them together for the SAM exhibit (in Seattle until April 23rd). Though Step Afrika! has moved on in its busy calendar of nationwide performances, Michelle Witt and the Meany Center for the Performing Arts are to be applauded for co-commissioning, with four other performing arts centers, this fitting tribute to the brilliant, beloved artist who lived in Seattle until his death in 2000.

In these fraught days that threaten a return to extremes of prejudice, we need to be shown that our nation is not only built on the exploitation of those who suffer injustice, but on the courage of those same people who refuse to be defined by the cruelty of others. I think Step Afrika's 'The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence' is so successful because it clearly demonstrates how the arts - music, dance, and visual arts together - can help us remember who we are as a people, and how to be the best people that we can be.

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