The Wooster Group’s The B-Side: “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons” begins with its own origin story. Eric Berryman, the co-creator and principal performer, recounts how he brought the idea to director Kate Valk while serving her dinner at the restaurant where he worked. Berryman’s inspiration was The Wooster Group’s Early Shaker Spirituals, “a record album interpretation” directed by Valk, in which a company of actors gave “a new live rendering” to a dusty 1976 LP. Berryman proposed a sequel of sorts – an album interpretation in which he would deliver the eponymous 1965 LP’s “songs, blues, spirituals, preaching, and toasts” live, transmitting the voices on the recording via an in-ear listening device. Obviously, Valk went for it and, after beginning in 2016, The Wooster Group and Berryman began working on the piece that is currently on view at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.
The prologue tells us the backstory of how the album interpretation came to be, but its purpose is otherwise unclear. Berryman delivers the monologue in a formal, stilted manner and it never feels like he’s actually talking to us. The Eric Berryman onstage is an imposter. He’s an actor delivering text. Berryman’s speech removes the real person from the events of his past and casts him as himself in his own play. If the point is not to make the album interpretation personal, why does it begin with a personal anecdote?
He steps into the record, as it were, as he drops the needle and gives voice to the inmates. Berryman is then amplified into a mouthpiece. He becomes a shamanistic medium, allowing the singing on the record to possess his body. By bringing these voices of the past into the living present, Berryman connects these black men in a segregated prison to contemporary life for black men. The spirit of the record transcends time and its flat, aural medium and becomes physicalized in Berryman. It’s not about his vocal performance, necessarily, though Berryman is an adept gospel singer; it’s more about where he feels the music. It enters him through the device in his ear, but it travels down into his guts and it nests and it multiplies before exiting his mouth. The sound seeps out through the cracks around his eyeballs, through his nose and his pores.
The most potent tracks are not sung – they’re the pieces of spoken-word preaching that allow Berryman to exhibit his full range of skills as an actor. The songs are confining and he stays parked next to the record player. In these spoken tracks (band two on side one and band six on side two), the inmates’ come through not only sonically, but also in Berryman’s limbs and torso. They take up more real estate in his frame and he latches onto the text, interpreting it not through a line reading that differs from the recording, but through a facial and physical representation of what we can’t see on the record and it’s sound-only limitations.
It’s still perplexing, though, that Berryman was inspired by the record, but remains so absent. What the LP means to him, personally, mostly isn’t displayed. It’s an impressive, bravura piece of acting and singing on his part, but there’s a pervading sense of something hollow looming over the show. For the final track, the audience is plunged into darkness for the first time (the house lights have heretofore remained up) and Berryman cedes center stage to the men’s voices, sitting in a chair off-center and watching the record spin. It’s only here, as he listens to the ghosts instead of manifesting them, that his relationship with the record is clear, and it’s a chilling, effective moment. But it’s too brief. The passion of this man for this music reaches its apex when he is just silently appreciating it, which places a larger question mark behind the theatrics before it.