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Director Kate Valk and performer Eric Berryman’s THE B-SIDE: “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons”: A Record Album Interpretation reenacts a vinyl record with The Wooster Group’s characteristic clinical precision, counting on the audience’s preexisting awareness of American slavery and Jim Crow laws to lend the performance all the pathos necessary.
The piece is typical of The Wooster Group, which finds its material in the off-roads of culture — for instance, “B” movies or an obscure panel discussion — usually layered with another, intentionally unrelated source. The Wooster Group’s performance in each piece grows out of the direct imitation of media: for example, aping the voice and gestures from Richard Burton’s 1964 film of Hamlet. Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons is a companion piece to the Wooster Group’s Early Shakespeare Spirituals, directed by Valk, which also reenacted a vinyl record onstage.
Apart from the sweet story of how Berryman accidentally met Valk and they developed the show together, the spoken text in The B-Side is strictly limited to the notes on the Negro Folklore album cover and a few short readings from the 1972 book Wake Up Dead Man: Hard Labor and Southern Blues by Bruce Jackson, the folklorist who recorded the LP.
The rest is what Berryman describes as “channeling”: he listens to an audio feed through an earpiece and precisely reproduces the singing and the spoken word tracks on the album. He has a silky speaking voice, with beautiful, clear diction, while his singing adapts itself readily to the wide range of pitch, phrasing, and vocal techniques on the record. Jasper McGruder and Philip Moore also ably vocalize along with Berryman.
Their live a cappella singing is a direct result of the conditions under which the songs were originally sung: in open fields, without the benefit of an orchestra. The workers lived and worked in segregated agricultural penal colonies in East Texas. Many of these work songs were sung by a group, sometimes in multipart harmony.
The songs speak of hunting a “nigger” with a bloodhound, the longing to be with a woman, injustice at the hands of the white man, fear of the whip, and the promise of life after death. Some songs are blues; others invoke the call and response of the spiritual. One track is a seriocomic parody of a sermon.
True to The Wooster Group’s minimalist aesthetic, clinical tables with wheels and starkly exposed media technology constitute the entirety of the set, apart from a couple of chairs and a stool. A video monitor shows pictures of Berryman’s apartment in Harlem. While The Wooster Group is known for its extensive use of video, here the effort was so restrained it seemed almost pointless.
The spectacle of black suffering has long been turned into entertainment for white people, as the minstrel tradition demonstrates. At the performance of Negro Folklore I attended, the audience was decidedly Caucasian and presumably sympathetic. I did wonder, however, if the sanitization of these songs, as they were transferred from the fields to vinyl and onto the stage, elided too much of our profoundly uncomfortable history as a nation.
The horror of slavery is embedded in the birth of American music. Negro Folklore documents the Jim Crow era of repression and racism, as the penal system in the South found a way to imprison the newly freed slaves and return them to slave labor under a different name.
Berryman’s seemingly simple reenactment of Negro Folklore deftly establishes the primordial link of singing to work. It shows the human voice as the ultimate embodiment of free expression that even prison can’t take away.
THE B-SIDE: “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons,” previously presented in 2017 at the Wooster Group’s home space in SoHo, the Performing Garage, continues at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn through March 31.