As co-commissioners, The Soraya and Step Afrika! presented the premiere of STONO on September 9, 2020, the anniversary of the 1739 uprising of African people who were enslaved in South Carolina. Yes, an act of insurrection near the Stono River that took place long before the Boston Tea Party. An act most Americans did not learn about in school. An act that provoked the subsequent 1740 Negro Act – a set of laws that were beyond inhumane, and which remained in effect until 1865. Look it up!
The filmed production was brilliant. There is simply no other word to describe it. Why?
Here are some of the ingredients that were creatively baked to perfection:
Dance Drum Music Voice
Africa United States History Community
Drama Righteousness Compassion Optimism
The opening scene of a burlap-clad man bent over a rubbly road set the feel of the hot South, where slaves would gather around the drum, chanting and dancing. From there, every visual, musical and physical gesture took us through time from 1739 to today and back again. We saw and felt Africa and South Carolina. The film was made in Washington, DC. and reflected many other American cities.
The production was made of separate pieces exploring different aspects of the story and a delicious range of African-rooted expression – song, spoken word, drum, dance, stepping, percussion, hamboning…all carefully orchestrated to compose a whole that was powerful and enlightening.
The camera work seemed simple, but shifts in point of view dramatically changed the emotive quality of the action. The locations moved from meadow and woods to monument surfaces, emulating the grandeur of larger edifices like the Jefferson Memorial and the farmland of the deep South. Most of the transitions in those environments felt seamless and enhanced the shock of suddenly moving to 2020 cityscapes.
At the heart of the work is the beat. The groove. The rhythm that begins deep in the human body, primal, essential – the heart and the breath. Dance and music speak to every human because every person has a body, and can viscerally relate to that underlying pulse, no matter their physical capabilities. The 1740 Negro Act took the drums away, but it could not take away the beat.
The dancing ranged from vigorous stepping to the broad movement of reaping crops. The dance was masterfully choreographed and executed, earth-driven and sky reaching. Every gesture added meaning to the narrative. Segments of spoken word were made more vivid by well-crafted movement.
STONO is a work of art that serves to tell an important story; to invigorate and energize us with phenomenal music and dance. STONO should encourage every American to learn more about our history and to make deliberate choices to improve our world.
I wish every person reading this would view the production and the powerhouse panel discussion that followed. The virtual premiere is immediately followed by a live panel discussion moderated by Lesli Foster (Evening Anchor, WUSA) and joined by C. Brian Williams (Founder and Executive Director, Step Afrika!), Dr. Aimee Cox (Associate Professor of Anthropology and African American Studies, Yale University), Kendall Thomas (Nash Professor of Law, Columbia University Law School) and Mayor Bruce Teague (Mayor of Iowa City, IA). Panelists will explore the Stono Rebellion and its relevance to issues regarding political protest and structural inequities that dominate American conversations today.
STONO was Directed by Ronnique Murray; Filmed and Eited by Ajah Smith; Produced by C. Brian Williams and Mfoniso Akpan; In association with RAMDANCE Effect, LLC and A to Z Productions; Additional support from Tyandre Alvin; Costumes by Kenann Quander; Original Music by Steven M. Allen; and Photography by Jordan Spry and Torrey Allen Photos. Featuring Step Afrika! artists Deatrice Clark, Emerald Holman,Conrad R. Kelly II, Misha Michel, Vincent Montgomery, Jr., Ronnique Murray, Dustin Praylow, Valencia Springer, Jordan Spry, Nicolas Stewart, Pelham Warner Jr., and Robert Warnsley. Special Guests: Kofi Agyei and Dionne Eleby.
Go to Step Afrika!’s website for more of the story.
To visit The Soraya website, click HERE.
Written by Mary Pat Cooney for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Step Afrika! – STONO – Photo by Torrey Allen