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Stepping through time: Hancher, Step Afrika! bring Black history to life

Step Afrika! dancers and musicians perform the #x201c;Stono#x201d; portion of #x201c;Drumfolk#x201d; at The New Victory
Step Afrika! dancers and musicians perform the “Stono” portion of “Drumfolk” at The New Victory Theater in New York, on Feb. 26. The 30-minute segment, commissioned by Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City, has been re-imagined for video, and will be streamed online Wednesday, on the anniversary of enslaved Africans launching the Stono Rebellion of 1739. (Rachel Papo for The New York Times)
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C. Brian Williams stepped into a new life path during Homecoming weekend his freshman year at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

He just didn’t know it yet.

The marketing major knew very little about stepping and the African American fraternity and sorority system that had created it in the early 20th century. But seeing it in action generated a lasting memory.

“I’ll just never forget it,” he said. “It was a dance form that was distinct — a percussive form that I’d never seen before.”

He was intrigued — so much so that he immersed himself in stepping in the spring of 1989, after joining a fraternity at the historically Black university. After graduation, he moved to southern Africa and began exploring stepping’s origins and connections to African traditions. The Houston native then came back to Washington and, in 1994, founded the first professional company dedicated to stepping.

Since then, he and his company have performed and educated audiences across the United States and in 60 countries. Iowa City audiences saw Hancher’s Step Afrika! commission of “The Migration: Reflections of Jacob Lawrence” in October 2016. Hancher is a lead commissioner for the troupe’s “Drumfolk,” which was supposed to help open Hancher’s 2020-21 season, but has been postponed to April 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the meantime, the “Stono” portion of “Drumfolk” has been re-imagined for the video realm. The virtual premiere is being presented free of charge at 7 p.m. Wednesday over Facebook and YouTube, on the anniversary of the 1739 Stono insurrection.

A livestreamed panel discussion about the work, the history behind it, and the ongoing efforts for social justice will follow. Moderator is Lesli Foster, evening anchor at WUSA, and panelists include Williams; Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague; Aimee Meredith Cox, Yale University associate professor of Anthropology and African American Studies; and Kendall Thomas, Columbia University Law School professor.

Origins

Stepping grew out rebellion.

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Its origins can be traced back to the largest insurrection of enslaved Africans in British North America, which began in the colony of South Carolina.

A road marker there notes that on Sept. 9, 1739, “about 20 Africans raided a store near Wallace Creek, a branch of the Stono River. Taking guns and other weapons, they killed two shopkeepers. The rebels marched south toward a promised freedom in Spanish Florida, waving flags, beating drums, and shouting ‘Liberty! They were joined by 40 to 60 more during their 15-mile march. They killed at least 20 whites, but spared others. The rebellion ended late that afternoon when the militia caught the rebels, killing at least 34 of them. Most who escaped were captured and executed; any forced to join the rebels were released. The S.C. (South Carolina) assembly soon enacted a harsh slave code, in force until 1865.”

This new code forbade enslaved people to move abroad, assemble in groups, learn to read English, raise food and earn money. The clothing and drums of their culture also were forbidden, Williams said.

“It was legislation that really restricted African life and movement, and became a model for the Colonies.”

“This definitely forever changed African-American life and culture,” added Chuck Swanson, Hancher’s executive director. “And so we wanted to bring that history to the present through dance. ... I’m just so anxious to be a part of something that we can bring to our audience that has such depth and meaning to it. That goes back to staying true to the mission of Hancher and what we do.”

It’s showcasing an important moment in time that continues to resonate.

“The Stono Rebellion of 1739 and subsequent Negro Act of 1740 are two pivotal moments for us,” Williams said, “which is why we really want to use our art and this work — ‘Drumfolk’ and the ‘Stono’ project — as (entry points) to this history that most Americans don’t know. ...

“It’s the moment when Africans, brought over into the Americas and slavery, begin to lose or let go of some part of their African-ness, and had to reinvent.”

New day, new way

In the absence of drumming, they began using their hands, feet and bodies as percussion instruments, all of which grew into the stepping dance form that has gained popularity and awareness through such films as “Stomp the Yard” in 2007 and “Drumline” in 2002, as well as Beyonce’s recent performance at California’s Coachella music and art festival.

The Stono Rebellion is the launching point for the 30-minute Step Afrika! production, which required the company to step into a new realm and figure out how to take it from the stage to the screen. It came with a steep learning curve, and more such projects will roll out before the April performance of “Drumfolk” in Iowa City.

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Exploring the virtual world is a key component for arts organizations right now, and Williams said a big part of his job is supporting the artists. He’s proud that he’s been able to keep the company’s more than 16 full-time artists employed and active during the pandemic — which isn’t easy when relying on donations, foundations and grants to continue while the stage lights are out.

“We’ve lost almost a million dollars in earned revenue” through events canceled due to COVID, he said. That has compelled Step Afrika! to look to other avenues to create and bring their art to audiences.

The company has tackled every aspect of the “Stono” online project, he noted, including choreographing, directing, shooting and editing the film.

“It’s definitely been a labor of love,” he said.

“Stono” also has taken on a heightened place in the continuing conversations growing out of the Black Lives Matter movement. It hasn’t changed the company’s focus, but illustrates the way the fight for freedom and social justice in America goes back to its earliest days.

“We’ve been doing the work, promoting a value of Black lives — not just in America, but throughout the world — ever since our inception in 1994,” Williams said. “That’s at the core of our work, which is highlighting the African-American story and experience, creating on parts of our culture, and to just keep sharing.

“It’s kind of like stepping, when I first started dealing with it (wondering) why isn’t our focus on the value of research? Why haven’t we paid attention to it? And that’s what I do. I like to focus on developing and nurturing the same kind of space that other non-Black art forms have been given.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

At a glance

• What: Hancher presents “Stono” virtual premiere, by Step Afrika!

• When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

• Where: Streaming on Facebook and YouTube

• Cost: Free; register at Hancher.uiowa.edu/2020-21/step-afrika-stono

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• Also: Livestreamed discussion follows, moderated by Lesli Foster, evening anchor at WUSA, and featuring Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague; Step Afrika! founder and executive director C. Brian Williams; Aimee Meredith Cox, Yale University associate professor of Anthropology and African American Studies; and Kendall Thomas, Columbia University Law School professor

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.