Theater review: “Drumfolk” on the arena stage

Cast of “Drumfolk”. Photo by Jacob Andrew Iwinski.

“Drumfolk” is a triumph, pure and simple. A showcase of dance and history, this production is the first in a multi-year partnership between Step Afrika!, the first professional step dance company, and Arena Stage. Stepping, a percussive dance style with clapping and stomping, flourished in the 20th century in the historically African-American fraternities and sororities of the National Panhellenic Council, also called Divine Nine, but has even older roots. Drawing inspiration from this tradition, “Drumfolk” celebrates the resistance and resilience of slaves and their descendants through a moment of history in colonial South Carolina.

…a triumph…an exquisite showcase…

In five movements, mostly choreographed by director Jakari Sherman, drums and drum-like percussion weave each dance into a grander narrative arc. The twenty-person cast builds electric energy and joyous beats, using their bodies, African drums, tambourines and even the audience to set a beat. Voices rise in chants, spirituals, hip-hop and beatbox. It is inspired by the lesser-known story of the Stono Rebellion of 1739, when enslaved Africans rebelled against settlers in South Carolina. “Drumfolk” celebrates African-American cultural heritage, the Stono 20’s quest for freedom at the cost of their own lives, and the endurance of traditional rhythms and dance. After the Stono Rebellion, the Negro Act of 1740 limited enslaved Africans in South Carolina to many basic dignities, including learning to read, gathering in bands, and playing drums. At the heart of “Drumfolk” is the idea that “they took the drums off…but they couldn’t stop the beat”.

Complementing the dance, Kenaan M. Quander crafted costumes that draw on a variety of historical influences without restricting movement. In the first act, the costumes evoke American slavery, with dresses with aprons and frayed overalls. The necks and wrists are adorned with gold bands, suggesting the bonds of slavery but also traditional African jewelry such as the ornamental neck rings worn by the Ndebele people of South Africa. The black leather shoes amp up the synchronized step, until the costumes and dance style change as the production shifts its focus to Stono. As rebels, the dancers wear plain and ragged clothing, barefoot as the dance style evolves into modern dance and acrobatics. Designed by Erik Teague, monsters with straw hair, pointy hats and pale masks threaten the colonists who have violently suppressed the doomed rebellion. In the second act, exploring the impact of the Negro Act of 1740, Quander’s costumes draw inspiration from more recent history, with a more militant aesthetic including black berets, a legacy of the Black Panther Party.

The stage, surrounded by the audience on three sides with drummers along the fourth, allows dancers to engage the audience in applause or call-and-response chants. The intimate space allows their eyes to pierce the crowd. In the center of the stage, a raised wooden platform provided first-rate acoustics while representing a “house of prayer”, like the miniature wooden frame suspended above. Prayer houses were small buildings where slaves could legally congregate, and which therefore became sites of coordination for the rebellion.

Minimal props, including a few benches, tambourines, and stamping sticks complete the storytelling. Occasional narration, chanted and sung, provides historical context, fleshed out by synopses of each segment of the show in the printed program. Thematically, “Drumfolk” reinforces the ideal of live free or die, which many Stono rebels embodied. Performer Ayana (Reed) Ogunsunlade samples the spiritual folk song “Oh, Freedom”, singing “Before I’m a slave / I’ll be buried in my grave / And come home to my lord and be free.” The songs convey historical facts, including some of the provisions of the Negro Act of 1740, as well as sentiments such as “We want to be free”. Perhaps the only problem with this production is that its unamplified dialogue isn’t always noticeable amid all the sound.

“Drumfolk” shines a light on Stono’s rebellion and his legacy with fury and reverence. An exquisite showcase of African American artistry and more specifically the steps, the talented athleticism of the cast, and the infectious rhythms of the storytelling will impress audiences regardless of prior familiarity with these dance styles. If this production is any indication, the future is bright for Arena Stage’s new partnership with C. Brian Williams’ Step Afrika!

Duration: 1h30 with a 15 minute intermission.

Age group: 8+

“Drumfolk” runs through June 26, 2022 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, DC 20024. Tickets are available on line.

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