Presented by Step Afrika!
Produced by ArtsEmerson
Choreographed by Jakari Sherman, Jackie Semela, Paul Woodruff
Percussionists: Artis Olds, Jakari Sherman, Andrew Vinson
May 3 through 6, 2018
Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre
219 Tremont Street, Boston, MA
Reviewed by Bishop C. Knight
“One of the most important functions of jazz has been to encourage a hope for freedom, for people living in situations of intolerance or struggle.” –Herbie Hancock, jazz pianist and bandleader
(Boston, Massachusetts) I could feel the crackling energy of the show, even before it started. I could anticipate that it’d be a layered and textured theatrical experience that engaged the audience, even before dancers and musicians arrived on stage. I am a person who is always listening to music. Likewise, I’m a patron who yearns for a show’s soundtrack to play both before and after the performance, as well as during its intermission. The recording of African drum music, peppered with the rattling of gourds and the rhythmic clapping of hands, was vitalizing and encouraged a social atmosphere before the show began. Most patrons were out of seats, strolling around, greeting each other, standing in small circles having spirited conversations, smiling while sipping drinks; it was the pre-party I always wished for.
This dance show was a series of vignettes titled The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence. The painter Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series was first exhibited at Downtown Gallery in New York City in 1941. Lawrence’s artwork depicts the migration of rural Blacks in the South to cities in the North where there were promises of better jobs and lives. Monitors along the stage’s back wall exhibited Lawrence’s artistry and provided moving imagery as a contextual backdrop to the troupe’s tap dances and stepping.
The settings of the various vignettes started in Africa and transitioned to America. The piece “Drum Call” was placed in an African Village, during which thirteen dancers drummed out a tight and captivating polyrhythm. “Drumfolk” brought us to a plantation with an Afro-Caribbean culture, and in this piece the performers did the Juba dance that involves stomping feet, slapping arms, patting legs. Midway through “Drumfolk,” patrons were encouraged to clap while the dancers chanted, “They took their drums away,” a reference to the Negro Act of 1740 mandating Africans lose their right to assemble and drum together.
The Migration’s journey through African and African-American dance conjured up the presence of these traditions in my own history. Around 1950 my Grammie left rural Virginia, beginning her migratory voyage up to Boston with my aunts and uncles. During my childhood I spent a lot of time with Grammie, who was a media junkie. There were piles and piles of labeled VHS tapes around her bedroom, until her dying day, and some of these tapes were of tap dancer Gregory Hines. My family revered Hines. I remember my mother and grandmother becoming genuinely mournful when Gregory Hines died in 2003 from liver cancer. Then when I departed home at 18, I took with me the family admiration for tap dancing. The night I saw Savion Glover dance in 2004 has always remains a special evening for me.
And that’s what The Migration meant to me. It’s a celebration of movement and music that would certainly impress you for your own personal reasons. The stirring gospel music could bring a patron back to their childhood in the church, and I promise the gumboot dance would completely thrill you. You’ve got one more chance to see this marvelous multimedia show, and in one of my favorite cities – the unbeatable incomparable super friendly and ultra brown Washington DC, which is minority majority 50.1% Black (a percentage that is currently increasing). The Migration troupe is wrapping up their tour at the Hartke Theatre, in the NE quadrant, 8-17 June 2018.