“They took the drums away, but they could not stop the beat.” That chanted refrain is the crux of “Drumfolk,” the latest production by Step Afrika!, which kicks off ArtsEmerson’s 2022-23 season Oct. 5-16. Through movement, theater, and music, the family-friendly show traces the evolution of a culture, shining a spotlight on key moments of African-American history.
“Drumfolk” is a journey of resistance and resilience, inspired by the pivotal but little known 1739 Stono Rebellion. In what was then a British colony in South Carolina, enslaved Africans used the drums — long a means of expression and communication — as a call to action, a means to start an insurrection. The rebellion failed, but in response, the Negro Act of 1740 was passed, further restricting the rights of the enslaved — including their use of drums. But they refused to be silenced. “Ever since that moment,” says Step Afrika! founder and executive producer C. Brian Williams, “Africans began to use their body as the drum.” The event marked a cultural turning point leading to the development of new percussive forms, from the expansion of body percussion and ring shout, to tap dance, hip-hop, and the style for which Step Afrika! has made its mark, stepping.
When Williams formed Step Afrika! in 1994 while working in Southern Africa, his plan was for a small troupe committed to preserving and promoting the percussive art form popularized by African American fraternities and sororities. (Williams had graduated from Howard University and learned to step himself as a member of the fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha.) Along the way, however, the Washington, D.C.-based company evolved into one of the nation’s largest African-American dance organizations, producing high-energy theatrical shows that blend stepping with older African traditions as well as contemporary art forms, such as social dance and beat boxing. The shows are enthusiastically interactive, inviting the audience to contribute their own energy. “Breaking that fourth wall is essential to the Step Afrika! experience,” Williams says. “When the audience connects, we’re able to create something special, a conversation.”
The award-winning company has toured to more than 60 countries around the world, headlined a Black History Month reception at the White House, and anchored the world’s first stepping interactive exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture. And in June, Williams was chosen for a 2022 NEA National Heritage Fellowship, marking the first time stepping has been fully recognized as a part of America’s artistic heritage and culture. “It’s the culmination of a very long journey, " Williams says, “recognizing how this uniquely American art form helped shape this country.”
“Drumfolk” is the third and most ambitious Step Afrika! production ArtsEmerson has presented, reflecting intensive historical research and featuring a cast of 20. “They are a brilliant company doing incredible work,” says Emerson College vice president and ArtsEmerson executive director David C. Howse. “You can feel the energy in your heart and your body and your mind, and the audience is ecstatic afterwards.”
Howse says the rare nearly two-week engagement in Boston reflects ArtsEmerson’s investment in creating more space for artists whose work has been marginalized and a commitment to building audiences reflective of Boston’s cultural diversity. He calls it a “long arc relationship” that helps build connections to the greater community. And for ArtsEmerson, as well as Step Afrika!, the show is not just an opportunity to entertain and educate, but also an invitation for reflection and conversation.
“You’ve probably heard us say what’s on stage is both the point and also the prompt, and for us, this is the chance to talk about the loss of the drum and the artistic response to that,” Howse says, adding that the show is a potent link for examining how we are dealing with losses today. “So what in our culture and our communities have been taken away and how do we respond? That’s another part of how we thought this is a compelling piece for this current moment.”
“‘Drumfolk’ shows that the past is still present,” Williams says ”.…and there’s so much more of our history to learn. We’ve only scratched the surface. If people go home and dive deeper into the history, I think we would have made a nice contribution to the American story and to our culture and to our collective ancestors who’ve helped our country become what it is today — and is still striving to be.”
STEP AFRIKA! — DRUMFOLK
Oct. 5-16, ArtsEmerson at Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre
Karen Campbell can be reached at email@example.com.