Can’t Stop the Beat: “Drumfolk”

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Presented by ArtsEmerson
Performed by Step Afrika!
Directed by Jakari Sherman
Composed by Steven M. Allen
Mask Design by Erik Teague
Lighting by Marianne Meadows
Sound designed by Patrick Calhoun and engineered by Danielle McBride
Costumes by Kenaan M. Quander
Step Afrika! was founded by C. Brian Williams, with Mfoniso Akpan serving as Artistic Director

October 5 – 16, 2022, 8 p.m., with weekend matinees at 2 p.m.
Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre
219 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02116
Drumfolk is made possible by the New England Foundation for the Arts’ National Dance Project with lead funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Review by Craig Idlebrook

BOSTON — The Africans who were stolen from their continent to become slaves in the American colonies and many of their descendants created and continue to recreate strong ties of family, music, and community while the forces of white supremacy continually work to strip away their efforts and deny their humanity. This process is as constant as waves cresting on the shore. It can be traced back to the earliest days of the colonization of what would become the United States.

The new show by Step Afrika!, Drumfolk, exquisitely and percussively documents the history of this successful resistance to cultural genocide. Through a mesmerizing, complex, and energetic show of dance and music, the troupe walks a fine line between chronicling the horrors endured by Black people in the United States and celebrating the joy of the culture that was saved from erasure.

The performance takes its inspiration from The Stono Rebellion of 1739, a famous uprising of enslaved Africans who took up arms to flee bondage in South Carolina for the promise of freedom in Spanish-held Florida. The bloody revolt, once defeated, led to the passage of an act by the South Carolina legislature to further restrict the rights of enslaved Africans and enslaved African Americans, barring them from the freedom of assembly, and the ability to learn to write or even use drums.

It is this last restriction that becomes much of the focus of this powerful performance, as the troupe demonstrates the culture that was stripped away and rebuilt against all odds. When the drums were taken away, Africans and African Americans created percussion with their bodies, and the show connects this act of defiance to the African American musical traditions of stepping and beatboxing.

It is here that I must add the caveat that I have not found deep connection in storytelling through dance. My review of how the storytelling of Drumfolk unfolded on stage must be taken with a grain of salt. With that being said, the show was not always successful in distilling the action in a cohesive, linear faction so that those who don’t know the story will understand all of what is unfolding on stage. Also, in the middle of the performance, the flight sequence choreography sequence appeared to become a too repetitious to hold attention.

However, even if the performance at times failed to create a A to B to C linear storyline for all to follow, it was much more successful in creating a shared emotional connection with the audience. This was imminently more valuable. In fact, it likely was wise to deviate from linear storytelling with such heavy subject matter to allow a long prelude of joy to unfold onstage.

It was the glow of those early sequences that carried us through the darkness that followed as the show progressed and sustained us until we could experience joy once again through watching the resilience of those who survived bondage with their souls intact. In this pacing, we are blessed to receive a rich example of the bittersweet legacy of what it means to create love and culture in a country that is often against you.

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