Step Afrika! kicks off Hancher 2020-2021 season with production on Stono Rebellion

Isaac Hamlet, Iowa City Press-Citizen
Published 3:36 p.m. CT Sept. 5, 2020

Hancher Auditorium is experiencing multiple metamorphoses. Not only has COVID-19 forced reformation of the performance hall’s 2020-2021 season, but a July announcement declared the University of Iowa will reduce funding to Hancher so as to make them a self-sustaining unit by 2024.

“What we’re doing now is we’re envisioning the new Hancher,” Hancher’s executive director Chuck Swanson said on Tuesday, almost exactly four years after a new Hancher emerged from flood devastation in new form.

It’s perhaps fitting that on the cusp of this new envisioning, a group among the first to perform at Hancher in 2016 should usher in the 2020-2021 season. At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Step Afrika! will stage “Stono,” the first of many yet-to-be-announced events this season.

“They’ve been a friend of Hancher’s for a long time. They actually helped in 2016 to open our new Hancher,” Swanson recalled. “Back then, we were part of a piece titled ‘Migration,’ based on Jacob Lawrence paintings of the Great Migration from the south to the north.”

This newest piece from Step Afrika!, on which Hancher is lead commissioner, is based on a historical inflection point for African-Americans: the Stono Rebellion.

“It’s extremely important to the United States and its history,” Mfon Akpan, artistic director for Step Afrika!, told the Press-Citizen. “And most people, I can guarantee you, have not heard of the Stono Rebellion.”

The Stono Rebellion began Sept. 9, 1739, roughly 20 miles outside of Charleston, South Carolina. The rebellion was organized by enslaved people of the African-diaspora demanding freedom, marching and gathering weapons and members on their way.

“One of the biggest reasons we’ve chosen the Stono Rebellion is the connection to the history and the origins of stepping,” Akpan said. “When you look at the significance of the drum, when you look at what the drum meant to that rebellion, and what the Negro Act did in terms of taking away that right.”

Akpan is referring to the Negro Act of 1740 — one of many measures taken in the aftermath of the rebellion to suppress uprisings from Black people. It became prohibited for slaves to earn money, grow their own food and use drums.

Members of Step Afrika! performing ‘Drumfolk’ at The New Victory Theater, on Wednesday, February 26, 2020. (Photo: Rachel Papo, Rachel Papo for The New York Times)

Though stepping — the style of performance from Step Afrika! — traces its origins to Black college students in the early 1900s, Akpan sees this 18th-century point of forced adaptation for African-Americans as a foreshadowing of the form.

“Now you have early African American percussive traditions that incorporate the body,” said Akpan. “You can kind of see this transformation of resilience and reclamation.”

This is explored more in Step Afrika’s other live production, “Drumfolk.” That show, originally intended to be a part of the Hancher’s fall lineup, is now planned to be performed live in April 2021. But “Stono” is something of a sample to that live show.

“(Stono) will be a jumping-off point for a year-long relationship with Step Afrika!” said Paul Brohan, the Programming Director for Hancher Auditorium. “Everything that we’re planning (with Step Afrika!) at this point relates to the Black experience in America.”

Though it’s not yet clear what these instances of collaboration between Hancher and Step Afrika! will look like in the coming year, attendees can likely expect to see more digital content. Step Afrika! — alongside theaters and live performers across the country — have been figuring out how to make the jump to film.

Though playing to the camera without an audience does not lend the dancers the excitement of the crowd, Akpan does see advantages — particularly, how performers are able to get more involved in other aspects of the art being produced while also becoming more specific with how their movements are translated.

“As an artist, it gets some of your other creative talents (engaged),” Akpan said. “I’m really proud of the way the company has been able to adapt to do what it needs to in order to press forward.”

The free digital performance has no limit on how many people can register and attend and has an approximate run time of 30 minutes, streamed through Facebook and Youtube.

Following the performance, Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague will be part of a live panel moderated by WUSA evening anchor Lesli Foster and including C. Brian Williams — the founder and executive director of Step Afrika! — Yale University professor Aimee Cox, and Columbia University professor Kendall Thomas.

Ultimately, the show, in Akpan’s eyes, is an expression of a period where African-Americans were faced with a question: “How do you adapt and remain resilient?”

Isaac Hamlet covers arts, entertainment and culture at the Press-Citizen. Reach him at or (319)-688-4247, follow him on Twitter @IsaacHamlet.

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