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Theatre in Review: The B-Side (Wooster Group/St. Ann's Warehouse)

Eric Berryman. Photo: Teddy Wolff.

The full title is almost longer than the show: The B-Side: "Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons": A Record Album Interpretation -- all this for a piece running a mere sixty minutes. And yet, what a haunting hour in the theatre it is. The actor Eric Berryman, inspired by the Wooster Group's Early Shaker Spirituals, brought to the company the idea of presenting this 1965 record album, a collection of "work songs, blues, spirituals, preaching, and toasts" sung by black convicts doing time in East Texas prisons. Sentenced to hard labor, the men sang to pass the time -- and, one suspects, as a source of spiritual strength. Aided by the singers Jasper McGruder and Philip Moore, Berryman plays the record on a turntable, and, listening along via in-ear monitor, delivers straightforward interpretations of the songs (and occasional spoken pieces).

Berryman begins by mentioning the names of the men whose voices are featured on the album, a simple gesture that proves spellbinding, if only because it reminds us how authentic, and grounded in suffering, these songs are. The first selection, "Raise 'Em Up Higher," was typically sung when cutting down trees; the effect of each repetitive verse ("Raise 'em up higher, higher, drop 'em down") carries the motion of axes chopping into wood; the effect is hypnotic, an introduction to a world where men were pitilessly reduced to objects of labor. "Three Moore Brothers" alludes directly to a Texas family that had inmates paroled and put to work on their plantation, a modified form of slavery that lasted well into the twentieth century. (This information, appropriately enough, comes from Wake Up Dead Man: Hard Labor and Southern Blues, a book of oral histories compiled by Bruce Jackson, who is also responsible for the album Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons.) The number is vocalized by Berryman, interspersed with interludes of whistling featuring the original performer, Joseph "Chinaman" Johnson, reaching across the decades to ghostly effect. A spoken piece, "T.B. Bees," conjures, in frank and clinical fashion the fact of tuberculosis, which could easily work its way through a prison population.

The low-key, unsensational presentation only adds to its raw power. Introducing "If You See My Mother," Berryman says, "The import of that last stanza is this: If a man drew a grassy row (i.e., one with a great deal of undergrowth) he could not hoe as fast as the other men in his squad and would be liable to whipping with the leather bat carried by the guard, a whipping that could quite easily kill the inmate." (The silence with which this statement was greeted at the performance I attended was eerily eloquent.) Another offering, "Rattler," bristles with violence treated as an everyday matter. Indeed, endurance is the constant theme, no more so than when all three men sing "Just like a tree that's planted by the water/Oh, I shall not be moved."

Berryman's voice seems to pierce the veil of the past, making the sorrows (and everyday horrors) of another time unsettlingly immediate; when he slips into character to introduce a number or perform a spoken piece, the transformation is instantaneous and complete. McGruder and Moore provide solid vocal support, and, in some numbers, choral voices from the record join them in an unearthly meld of past and present. The songs are strangely beautiful, even when detailing the ugliest facts of life.

Most aspects of this Kate Valk-directed piece, including Elizabeth LeCompte's production design, Ryan Seelig's lighting, and Enver Chakartash's costumes, are, necessarily, simple. Eric Sluyter's sound design preserves a precise balance between live and recorded voices. Robert Wuss' video design imposes an eerie shadow effect on photos of Berryman's apartment, as well as archival footage of a chain gang at work.

Seeing The B-Side, one is deeply struck by the thought that such routine cruelty existed in one's lifetime; from there, it's not hard to extrapolate how cheaply, and in too many places, black men's lives continue to be held. This exquisitely shaped serving of raw material stunningly demonstrates how pain can be transmuted into art; it also notes, with quiet force, that the existence of such pain is a terrible commentary on us all. This paradoxical thing of beauty shames and uplifts at the same time. -- David Barbour

(5 March 2019)

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