Musi­cal beings

Philly Fringe 2019: The Woost­er Group presents The B‑Side’

In
3 minute read
Channeling the inmates’ voices: The Wooster Group's Eric Berryman, Jasper McGruder, and Philip Moore. (Photo by Bruce Jackson.)
Channeling the inmates’ voices: The Wooster Group's Eric Berryman, Jasper McGruder, and Philip Moore. (Photo by Bruce Jackson.)

The show’s title alone intrigued me enough to get a ticket. As I walked into the sold-out theater, it became clear that I wasn’t alone in my interest. The B-side: “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons,” A Record Album Interpretation is a 65-minute original performance by The Wooster Group. The brainchild of performer Eric Berryman, the show is based on an LP of work songs, blues, spirituals, and toasts recorded in 1964 in Texas’s then-segregated prison farms.

At FringeArts, Berryman and fellow artists Jasper McGruder and Philip Moore performed all 14 tracks of the original 1964 vinyl album: Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons. Each track was performed a cappella, with performers channeling the inmates’ voices from the record via in-ear receivers and transmitting the entire album live.

Transported to another time and place

The show began with Berryman, lead vocalist, walking on stage and giving a brief description on the origins of the show. From the start, Berryman spoke and moved with purpose and confidence in a way that made me sit up straight in my seat.

Berryman went to the table with the record player, put the record on, and began singing Track 1: “Raise ‘Em Up Higher.” The prisoners did hard labor in the prison farms, often singing work songs while cutting sugar cane, logging, and picking cotton. Some of the work songs sound like gospel music, with Berryman’s deep voice setting the base, accompanied by McGruder and Moore singing back up vocals.

Listening to the interpretations of these songs, I felt transported to another time and place. The preciseness, passion, and humanity created by the performers painted powerfully vivid imagery of life on the prison farms.

In between tracks, Berryman read from the liner notes on the album and provided context from the book Wake Up Dead Man: Hard Labor and Southern Blues by Bruce Jackson, the folklorist who recorded the album. The voices of the live performers blended with and complemented the voices on the record, until you’re lost in whether art is imitating life or the other way around.

Reasons to stand

The sound of the performers harmonizing was truly magnificent, and drew a couple of hoots from the audience in mutual appreciation. Subtle humor was layered in the performance, offsetting the intensity of each song. But during the spiritual song on Track 6: “Don’t Be Uneasy,” Berryman had a far-away look in his eyes while singing, as if he was tapping into the past, present, and future struggle for African American men.

Berryman’s inspiration was a desire to honor these men who created such incredible art under brutal conditions, just to survive. The prisoners, Berryman stated, “didn’t sing this music when they got free. It reminded them of a time they didn’t want to go back to. But as a piece of culture, particularly for my generation, I want people to play it the same way they play a Bessie Smith record.”

The performance ended with film footage from the actual prisoners chopping trees and singing in unison. I was put in a trance while watching these men work and sing, until the performance abruptly ended, the blackout coinciding with the sound of the last blow against wood. As the audience sat in silence for a moment in the dark theater, I felt lucky to have witnessed something genuinely special. I joined a standing ovation. We stood for these performers, we stood for the people imprisoned, and we stood for a world worth improving.

What, When, Where

The B-Side:‘Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons,” A Record Album Interpretation. By The Wooster Group. Through September 8, 2019, at FringeArts, 140 N Columbus Boulevard, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.

FringeArts is a wheelchair-accessible venue. For information on all accessibility features, visit here, call the box office, or email [email protected]. There is a private gender-neutral restroom available on the second floor.

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