Hancher starts season with Step Afrika! virtual dance performance

Titled ‘Stono,’ the dance performance’s world premiere will take place on the 281st anniversary of the Stono Rebellion. Post-performance, a discussion panel will speak about the rebellion and current racial events in today’s society.


Rachel Papo for The New York Tim

Members of Step Afrika! performing ‘Drumfolk’ at The New Victory Theater, on Wednesday, February 26, 2020.

Tatiana Plowman, Arts Reporter

An energetic, traditional African-American dance company takes the stage. They perform with immense passion and bring stories to life. Audiences are easily transported into the world they have created. However, this time they will be immersed through a computer screen.

The world premiere of Stono, a new dance project by the dance company Step Afrika!, based in Washington D.C., will take place for free, online at 7 p.m. on Sept 9, in partnership with Hancher Auditorium.

The performance will mark the first large-scale virtual event hosted by Hancher. The auditorium’s partnership with Step Afrika! over the course of the year will include a plethora of online projects and end with an in-person performance of Drumfolk, held at Hancher Auditorium in April 2021, according to an August release.

Step Afrika!’s dance blends percussive, traditionally African-American dance styles with an array of contemporary art forms. They incorporate storytelling, songs, and humor into their performance pieces, creating a unique and compelling art experience, as described on their website.

Hancher Auditorium Executive Director Chuck Swanson said he is ecstatic to bring this opportunity to students and the Iowa City community. Both Hancher and Step Afrika! have worked feverishly to bring Stono to audiences, he said.

Though there has been much uncertainty about making live performances available to students this year, both Swanson and Step Afrika!’s Founder and Executive Director C. Brian Williams said they are thrilled to have this performance take place.

“This is just the start of our relationship [with Step Afrika!] … we cannot wait to keep sharing these important historical events and educating our students and community through art,” Swanson said.

Stono commemorates the 281st anniversary of the Stono Rebellion. On Sept. 9, 1739, many enslaved African Americans in the North American British colonies began marching in South Carolina along the Stono River. They headed to Spanish Florida, where they were promised freedom, chanting “liberty,” pounding drums, rhythmically clapping, and waving flags that symbolized freedom high in the sky.

The rebellion was the first African American march for freedom and is barely known in American history, according to the release.

The dance was filmed outside in order to practice social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Williams said. About 16 artists will be seen in this 30-minute dance performance. Stono marks the company’s second virtual event; their first virtual event had previously commemorated Juneteenth.

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“It is a very different way to experience work, in-person versus film … the artists have been pushing themselves to do the best they can with the situation they are in,” Williams said.

He also shared that he can’t wait for everyone to learn more about this historic event that marked an important point in African-American history. The director said he hopes to inspire communities to not shy away from conversations about racial inequality.

After the virtual performance, a live panel will discuss the events of the Stono Rebellion. They will discuss its relevance to today’s modern society, in regard to political protests and structural inequalities that are at the forefront of American conversation.

Williams said he wanted to give the audience a chance to talk about the current climate and events occurring in the country, as “[observing] the past can lead to a brighter future.”

The panel will be moderated by Williams, Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague, Yale Professor of anthropology and African studies Aimee Meredith Cox, Columbia Professor of law Kendall Thomas, and evening anchor of WUSA-TV Leslie Foster.

Swanson and Williams both said they look forward to future performances and chances to work together to bring important history to the forefront through art. Hancher first presented and commissioned Step Afrika! in October 2016 with a performance entitled, The Migration: Reflections of Jacob Lawrence.

Step Afrika! plans on staying in the digital world and creating more virtual projects in the future. Programming Director of Hancher, Paul Brohan, said that Hancher also plans on bringing more virtual opportunities and events to university students and Iowa City residents in this school year and beyond.

“We are exploring unique ways to provide more digital and virtual content to the university students as well as Iowa City and our patrons … it is [our] mission to continue educating and fostering art to the community,” Brohan said.

Registration is requested for the event online.