The Migration Review: The African-American Exodus In Painting and Dance

Millions of African-Americans moved from the rural South to industrial cities in the North in the decades after World War I, one of the largest migrations in the history of humanity, ignored by most newspapers (except the black press), but famously captured by a 23-year-old painter named Jacob Lawrence. In 1941, he created The Migration Series, 60 paintings that depict the mass exodus of African-Americans from the South. The series caused a sensation. In 2011, a dance company called Step Afrika! created The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, turning visual art into dance theater. The 80-minute show — it, too, in its own way sensational —  is now on stage through November 26 at New Victory Theatre.

The Migration is not a direct adaptation, but a striking interpretation that reflects the way that  Jakari Sherman,  the director of the show as well as one of its 12 choreographers and 14 performers, likes to describe the merging of art forms: “The stage is our canvas, our bodies are the brush, and the movement is the paint.”

Lawrence’s paintings focus on the years between World War I and World War II. The Step Afrika! show greatly broadens their canvas, beginning in a West African village in the 17th century and ending in Chicago in the 1930s. It’s comprised of six dance pieces, some pulled from Step Afrika!’s previous repertoire, that progress more or less chronologically. Above the performers, five screens project a rotating selection of the paintings from Lawrence’s series.

While the entire piece is charged with energy, some moments stand out.

The piece begins with the performers, dressed in traditional African fabric and gold, beating on drums. Eventually, as they drum, they begin to sway. Their movement mimics the waves of the ocean that they are forced to cross. The five screens show only close-up details from Lawrence paintings, obscuring the story each tells. They become abstract paintings, introducing Lawrence’s color scheme.

The first words are not spoken until a half hour into the show. It is a chant: “They took the drums away.” This is an allusion to the Negro Act of 1740 in South Carolina, which, in response to fears of slave insurrection, prohibited the “using or keeping of drums, horns, or other loud instruments, which may call together or give sign or notice to one another of their wicked designs and purposes.”   Performers use a rhythm stick and their bodies to substitute for the drums – the beginning of a tradition that will lead to tap dancing and stepping. Step Afrika! began in 1994 promote stepping, an African-American form of dance that uses footsteps, handclaps, and chanting to produce drum-like sounds.

Later, the five panels show just one of Lawrence’s paintings – a figure in red hunched over in grief, beneath a tree branch fitted with a noose. It is the aftermath of a lynching. Beneath the projected painting, a scene unfolds – a man in rags stands to the side in harsh lighting, and then a woman (Ronnique Murray), sits on a wooden chair in church, dressed in the kind of frilly light cotton dress popular in the 19th century. She dances in pain and sorrow, a Bible in her hand. This is accompanied by a spiritual, sung by Brittny Smith, standing in the back and dressed in similar attire. (Spirituals, a note in the program explains, “played a significant role in lifting the spirit in troubled times.”)

After intermission, Lawrence’s paintings of trains, train travel and train stations are projected onto the screen. In the first of three movements in “Trane Suite,” Lionel D. Lyles II plays an original jazz composition by W.E. Smith on his saxophone. The performers, dressed in their finest early 20th century traveling clothes, use their bodies to imitate both the motions of a locomotive, and the sounds it makes.

The final dance takes place in Chicago, beneath projections of Lawrence’s paintings of the city’s train station, apartment buildings, and the pouring of molten steel in a steel plant. Men wear spats and fedoras and vests, or sailor suits; Women are dressed in flapper hats and stylish outfits. They mix tap dancing, stepping and modern dance in an exuberant celebration of city life and city rhythms.

Theatergoers who want to see more of Jacob Lawrence’s work don’t have far to travel. Right underneath the New Victory Theatre, in the Times Square subway station is Lawrence’s glass mosaic, “New York in Transit.”



Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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