Painter Jacob Lawrence's prolific artistic career as a chronicler of African-American lives had an auspicious beginning when, at the age of 23, he completed his 60-panel Migration Series and came almost immediately to national attention. A handful of those works provide a backdrop for Step Afrika!'s exciting and brilliantly choreographed show The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, now running at the New Victory Theater. Though the show takes Lawrence as its inspiration, The Migration's main attraction is the extraordinarily talented company of dancers who get hands clapping and hearts pounding with their unflaggingly energetic performances.
Step Afrika! is one of the nation's most accomplished professional dance companies specializing in the tradition of stepping — a highly percussive genre that involves intricate foot and hand work and complex, often surprising syncopated rhythms. Precise, detailed, and imaginative choreography distinguishes every segment of The Migration, a 90-minute show divided into two parts: The first depicts the forced migration of Africans from the African continent to the slaveholding South, and the second depicts the migration of African-Americans from the South to northern and western cities like Chicago in the early decades of the 20th century. Director Jakari Sherman and lighting designer John D. Alexander illustrate these mass movements of people with projections of Lawrence's provocative work in the background as the dancers enact the tragic and triumphant stories of black people uprooted by the persistent realities of America's racism and economic inequality.
Though the show doesn't shy away from depicting the ugly side of these migrations (Lawrence's panel 15, "There were lynchings.," features prominently in one of the segments), Sherman and the choreographers focus their attention on narratives of endurance, faith, and joy. The percussion pyrotechnics of the opening number "Drum Call", in which the ensemble combines the beats of a drum orchestra with dramatic flourishes of dance, establishes the heart-pounding pulse of the show.
Then, in "Go West: Circa 1890" and "Drumfolk," the company gets to the business of serious stepping as they depict the ongoing influence of African music in the lives of blacks in America. In the "Wade Suite," choreographers Kirsten Ledford, LeeAnet Noble, and Paul Woodruff add the South African Gumboot Dance (a dance performed in rubber boots) and tap to the performance as they examine the strength that religious belief provided in taking on the challenges faced by African-Americans searching for a way out of the South.
After an intermission, the second half begins with the "Trane Suite" segment (choreographed by Sherman, Mfoniso Akpan, Aseelah Allen, and Kevin Marr), which captures the hustle, bustle, and excitement of leaving the South behind for more liberating environs. This sets the tone for the final scene, "Chicago" (choreographed by Sherman), in which the ensemble, dressed in Kenann Quander's 1920s-inspired costumes, makes the stage explode with movement in a thrilling, exuberant finale.
The show's creators might have incorporated more background about Lawrence and his art into the The Migration so that audiences unfamiliar with the artist's work would realize the paintings are not just a part of Harlan Penn's scenic design. Adults and children may want to take a closer look at the Migration Series before seeing this production. Either way, The Migration illustrates for adults as well as kids (7 and up) the power that music, dance, art, and imagination have in finding the strength to triumph over oppression.