Step Afrika!’s Drumfolk ‘well-received’ by Cutler Majestic audiences

By Karenna Umscheid, Staff Writer

Drumfolk, produced by C. Brian Williams and performed by Step Afrika!, is a celebration of music at the intersection between African American history and culture. It ran from Oct. 5 through Oct. 16 in the Cutler Majestic Theater.

Step Afrika! is one of the largest African American dance companies in the world, based in Washington, D.C. It seeks to preserve and share the art of stepping throughout the world through its shows, which are derived from African American history. 

The show draws on the history of the Stono Rebellion of 1739 and Negro Act of 1740, which banned the right of African American people to use the drum. This ban resulted in the birth of the art of stepping, a form of percussion where one uses their body to create the rhythm and beat.

“This is a story of hope and reclamation and remembrance, and it’s an important part of American history,” said Mfon Akbar, artistic director of Step Afrika!. 

Presented through ArtsEmerson, Drumfolk is an energetic, lively dance show with a variety of styles, incorporating traditional Western and Southern African dances with music, comedy, and storytelling. 

“[Step Afrika!] started out as a festival and exchange between Americans and South Africans with dance, culture, and food,” Akbar said. “Subsequently, it became a touring dance company around the early 2000s.”

By sharing this story, along with Step Afrika!’s 28-year history of creating shows that both educate and move audiences, the dance company preserves this art form and promotes the preservation of history and cultural exchange between Africa and America. 

In addition to its cultural relevance, Akbar explains that the show also connects the significance it has to the City of Boston and its revolutionary history.  

“This common theme of rebellion and reclamation and moving forward and looking towards hope is a common theme,” Akbar said. 

Drumfolk is unique in its integration of other art forms, including a human beatboxer, vocal percussion, and music produced by the director. Each element combines to turn the theater into a huge, live drum.

Brian Williams, the founder and executive producer of Step Afrika!, cited the return to live theater as one of many reasons to see Drumfolk at the Cutler Majestic Theater.

“There’s nothing like being in a theater and feeling the energy of world-class artists on a stage creating right before your eyes in the moment,” he said. 

Williams talked about his passion for the arts in general, and the opportunities StepAfrika! has provided. 

“I love dedicating my life to both the arts and artists, and finding ways to support artists and be able to share their work with people all over the world,” Williams said. “The arts have given me a chance to not only enjoy the theater and enjoy the stage, but also go around the world and see many, many different art forms and many, many different artists, developing and sharing their culture.”

Akbar said that stepping is historically a community-based event, and Step Afrika! continues to incorporate this into its performances through the creative agency every performer has to make the shows as authentic and meaningful as possible. People of various art forms come together to create a powerful story. 

“It was about the gathering of like minded individuals and expression of their love, pride and respect for their different organizations,” said Williams. 

After the Drumfolk tour, Williams said Step Afrika! will continue creating new shows and researching more stories to tell. 

“The organization is built to preserve a promoted traditional stepping and also to really expand upon this artistic possibility,” he said. 

Susan Chinsen, artistic director of ArtsEmerson, described the reaction to Drumfolk as “enthusiastically positive.” She emphasized the call-and-response nature of the show in relation to electrifying the crowd, and making the show as powerful as possible. 

“That idea of sharing excitement through art and through music is felt through the whole theater, because it’s not just the company performing on stage, it was like a conversation between artists and audience members.”

Chinsen said Drumfolk was one of the most well-received ArtsEmerson shows yet. 

“This sets a tone for the type of art and storytelling that I think people are really hungry for,” they said.  “There is a demand in Boston for this type of art and reason to gather.”