The B-Side: "Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons"

Theater, Experimental
4 out of 5 stars
The B-Side: "Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons"
Photograph: Courtesy Bruce Jackson

Theater review by Helen Shaw

The “record album interpretations” that make up the current Wooster Group season are exquisitely simple. An LP is played. As we listen to it, so do the performers onstage, wearing in-ear speakers that let them imitate the singers on the recording: every breath, every inflection, every murmured bit of chat picked up by microphones long ago. The actors’ voices are layered over the recorded ones in a form of channeled incantation that in some ways feels less like a show than like a religious practice.

In The B-Side: “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons”, three men—Eric Berryman, Philip Moore and Jasper McGruder—reconstruct a 1965 album compiled by the documentarian and folklorist Bruce Jackson. In his introduction, Berryman says he pitched the project to director Kate Valk after seeing the Woosters’ beautiful Early Shaker Spirituals (which returns to the stage later this month). Fourteen tracks ensue: sung fables, blues spirituals, work songs, poetic toasts, even a rousing parody of preaching. We never learn who wrote these masterpieces; their authorship has been lost along the fields and roadsides. Berryman presides from a turntable, while Moore and McGruder often sit with their backs to us, their faces caught on camera and shown on a dreamy black-and-white television screen. Berryman also reads snippets from other interviews conducted by Jackson, which emphasize the awful continuity between slavery and hard labor on Southern prison farms.

As efficient as the swing of an axe, The B-Side is many things at once: a concert, a tribute to the vanished dead, a vivid evocation of the past and a furious reckoning with it. More and more, it seems that this kind of performative memorialization is the great gift of the Wooster Group. One thinks of Jill Johnston’s recorded laughter in 2017’s The Town Hall Affair; Paul Schmidt’s dear videotaped face in the 2003 restaging of Brace Up!, four years after his death; the personal audiotapes in 1977’s Rumstick Road, in which Spalding Gray mourned his mother’s suicide (and, unbearably, predicted his own). Although the Woosters’ tech-forward avant-gardism has sometimes seemed aggressive, it is revealing itself, in this rough world, as consistently, heartbreakingly gentle. Here, again, they treat the voices of the dead as precious beyond compare. They carry them out of the past, handling them like robins’ eggs, putting them in their own mouths for safekeeping.

Performing Garage (Off Broadway). Directed by Kate Valk. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr. No intermission. Through November 19.

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By: Helen Shaw

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