Review: Finding the Beat and Pulse of the Great Migration

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Ta’Quez Whitted, center, with fellow members of Step Afrika! performing in the “Chicago” segment of “The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence” at the New Victory Theater. Credit Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

Jacob Lawrence’s parents were two of the millions who took part in the Great Migration, the 20th-century flow of black Americans from the South to the North. Lawrence was just 23 when he produced his sweeping masterwork, “The Migration Series” (1941), 60 modernist tableaus depicting the journey and what drove it.

It’s a narrative with movement at its core, so it is both ingenious and intuitive to take choreographic inspiration from Lawrence’s paintings, as the Washington troupe Step Afrika! does with “The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence.” In its New York premiere at the New Victory Theater, the show uses stepping, tap and other dance traditions to trace a historical arc, from Africa to the post-bellum South to a hopeful new life in the North.

A resilient vitality fuels the production, directed by Jakari Sherman on a set (by Harlan Penn) whose backdrop of screens displays a succession of Lawrence’s paintings, some fully, others in detail. The show, though, lacks the propulsive force of Lawrence’s storytelling. There is not a weak link in this group of dancers and musicians, and each piece of choreography has merit on its own, but the performance’s cumulative effect is less than potent.

That may be partly because of Mr. Sherman’s emphasis on uplift. In Lawrence’s paintings, ugliness and danger are inescapable — facts of life for black Americans in both the South and the North. Mr. Sherman acknowledges those somber elements but foregrounds his story with brighter hues in a more impressionistic style.

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Brittny Smith (at the mic) and Ronnique Murray in “The Deacon’s Dance” from “Wade Suite.” Credit Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

The show sets expectations high with its powerful start in “Drum Call,” meant to evoke a long-ago village in Africa. On myriad drums arrayed across the stage, performers beat a furiously building rhythm, warning of the arrival of strangers’ ships. With the complex percussion (arranged by Mr. Sherman) layered on top of W. E. Smith’s song “African Village,” the music is lush, the energy immense.

The show downshifts with “Go West: Circa 1890” (choreographed by Makeda Abraham), in which anxiety dissolves into the shared exhilaration of dance; and “Drumfolk” (choreographed by David Pleasant), about using the body to create rhythm and music at a time when drums were forbidden. Kinetic excitement returns with “Wade Suite,” which journeys from spiritual desperation to the sweet succor of salvation. (Its first movement, “The Deacon’s Dance,” is based on a traditional Zulu dance; its second is choreographed by Kirsten Ledford, LeeAnét Noble and Paul Woodruff.) Fusing gospel music with tap, stepping and gorgeous gumboot dancing, this is movement as communal celebration.

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