Step Afrika! is a contemporary dance company showcasing top-of-the-game performers in the tradition of stepping, an integral staple of Black culture, particularly for Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The group’s latest production is “Drumfolk,” a high-intensity, celebratory and participatory tribute to the role of rhythm and percussion in the African American diaspora. “Drumfolk” will run in D.C. at Arena Stage from May 31 to June 26.
C. Brian Williams is the founder and producer for Step Afrika! For 28 years, he’s worked to build a platform for artists and performers, working with agents to ensure bookings and tours run smoothly, raising funds, reviewing grant proposals and pouring his heart into this one-of-a-kind arts organization. We chatted with Williams about the inspiration behind “Drumfolk” and the importance of creativity and movement in modern life.
District Fray: What was Step Afrika! doing when Covid-19 hit?
C. Brian Williams: When the pandemic first hit, Step was in the middle of a three-week, sold-out off-Broadway run. We were getting ready for what might have been our biggest performance year ever. “Drumfolk” just hit this stage in New York and was getting great reviews. The pandemic hit right before the third weekend of the show — we actually saw the lights go down in the theater on Broadway. We were performing at 42nd and 7th, right in the heart of everything. And the next day, it was vacant.
How did Step Afrika! respond?
We shifted to digital platforms and started making videos, doing Zoom rehearsals and rehearsing outside. In the middle of June, we rehearsed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and a rain shower cut rehearsal early. It was crazy trying to pivot and figure out how to still create and maintain 28 years of performing arts history. I’m proud to say Step Afrika! kept our artists employed throughout the entire pandemic without incident. We provided health insurance for all our artists and continue to do so. I think we doubled down on our support in providing full-time, excellent employment for artists.
What would you like people to know before they attend “Drumfolk”?
First and foremost, “Drumfolk” is inspired by two very significant moments in American history I would guess 99% of Americans know nothing about. The first is the Stono Rebellion of 1739. I would love for anyone who’s coming to this show to just Google that so they come with a little bit of a background to the story. This is not a play — we won’t walk you through exactly what happened in the Stono Rebellion. Also Google the Negro Act of 1740. Then when you come to the show, it will be even richer. Lastly, I would say come ready to participate. The more energy the audience gives to the artists, the more they can give right back.
For those who spend most of our time working at desks, how would you suggest bringing some physical movement into our lives?
One of my favorite movement exercises is just walking, to be honest. As a former dancer, I now spend most of my time at a desk and there’s no way I have the time and the stamina to workout [the way] my artists do. But I can get up and walk for 30 or 45 minutes. I can do some very, light pushups, sit-ups and training just to keep the body active. I think gentle, consistent exercise is just as good for the person who works at their desk as for a professional dancer, football player or soccer player, or whatever — just taking care of our bodies through basic exercise.
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