Step Afrika! began as a collaboration between American dancers and members of Johannesburg's Soweto Dance Theater in 1994. They have since emerged as one of the top stepping companies in the United States. Their most prolific work, The Migration Series: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence
, is now on stage at the New Vic! In this, they bring to life The Migration Series
, a landmark painting series by Jacob Lawrence inspired by the journey of the millions of African Americans who moved from the rural South to the urban North to rebuild their lives after World War I. We sat down with founder C. Brian Williams to discuss the cultural context surrounding the show.
1. How do you think The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence reflects today's landscape?
is an extremely important work for Step Afrika! Every time the cast walks onto the stage, I think of those brave men and women who left the South with its unbearable restrictions on African American life and took a journey without truly understanding what awaited them on the other side. No one ever wants to abandon their home, unless there's no other reasonable alternative. Every performance of The Migration
is a percussive tribute to the strength and resilience of these migrants. Their movement truly transformed our country.
Seeing the devastating, forced migration of families in Syria, Myanmar and the Central African Republic, alongside our own country's heated dialogue about immigration, I'm reminded that the issues Jacob Lawrence painted about in 1940 remain relevant today. My hope is that those of us not currently in motion demonstrate even more compassion for those who are.
2. What do you want audience members to walk away thinking?
First and foremost, I want the audience to have an incredible time at the theater. For Step Afrika! and our incredible team of artists, the theater is a special place where the audience and artist create a very special moment in time together. We all need to make more room for live performance, especially in challenging times, because there's nothing quite like it.
also gives the audience a chance to reflect on their own individual migration stories. The journeys taken by all of our ancestors make us who we are. Although we focus on the Great Migration, you can compare Lawrence's paintings and our show to photographs taken at Ellis Island in the early 1900s, videos of migrants heading towards the border in the Southwestern United States, and the images of the tens of thousands of Syrian families escaping the challenges back home in the hope of peace and a better life elsewhere.
We want to remind the audience that within each and every one of us lies a migration story. When we see the challenges faced by the migrants of today, we should never forget that many of our ancestors once walked in those shoes.
3. Tell us about stepping and why do you think it's now, finally coming into mainstream culture.
Stepping is such an unique art form and dance tradition and we've enjoyed sharing it with audiences around the globe for over 23 years. With its origins in the early 1900s, stepping was created by African American men and women on college campuses who became members of fraternities and sororities. These Greek-letter organizations, like Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., of which I am a member, or Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., the first African-American sorority created in the United States, led to the development of stepping on college campuses. It took over 85 years before mainstream America took notice.
In 1988, famed director Spike Lee released his film, Skool Daze
, which brought an incredible amount of attention to both African American college life and the tradition of stepping. Just a few years later, in 1994, Step Afrika! began and we have been spreading the word non-stop ever since.
Photos: William Perrigen
||In The Migration, "two art forms meld, and then painted images seem to come to life," according to The Washington Post. Tickets are available today!