Saturday, February 2, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "Rattling" (on The Wooster Group and Eric Berryman's "The B-Side")

by Douglas Messerli

The Wooster Group, with Eric Berryman, Jasper McGruder, and Philip Moore The B-Side: “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons” A Record Album Interpretation / Los Angeles REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney / CalArts Theater) / I saw this with Deborah Meadows on Wednesday, January 30, 2019

On January 30th I attended the newest of what must have been now a dozen of performances that I’ve seen by the great theater company, The Wooster Group. This new work, The B-Side: “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons” A Record Album Interpretation echoes the group’s Early Shaker Spirituals, presented at REDCAT in 2015. Indeed, the central performer, Eric Berryman—who had discovered an album recorded by now distinguished SUNY Buffalo folklorist, Bruce Jackson—after seeing the Shaker spirituals production, had already submitted a pitch for this performance when, while working as a waiter in a New York Tea House, he coincidentally encountered Kate Valk, the director of The Wooster Group. Clearly, some larger force had determined that the two should come together (I am not a believer in religion but am convinced of intentional coincidence).
      Early in this performance, Berryman recounts this meeting, and sets the tone for a work that somewhat transcends time, darting in and out of the past, as Berryman and two other singers, Jasper McGruder and Philip Moore, help take the crackling, hard-to-hear performances of prisoners in Texas (including, and I believe their names are important to reiterate: Johnnie Adams, W. D. “Alec” Alexander, Virgil Asbury, John Bell, Douglas Cannon, James A. Champion, William Evans, John Gibson, James Hpton, James W. Hobbs, Louis “Bacon & Porkshop” Huston, Johnny Jackson, Floyd James, Lemon Jefferson, Jesse “G.I. Jazz” Hendricks, James Johnson, Joseph “Chinaman” Johnson, C. B. “Snuffy” Kimble, Henry Landers, L.Z. Lee, Clem A. Martin, Leroy Martindell, Mack Maze, D.J. Miller, Houston Page, Marshall Phillips, Johnnie H. Robinson, Arthur “Lightning” Sherrod, Albert Spencer, Lee Curtis Tyler, David Walker, Jesse Lee Warren, Venesty Welves, George White, Morgan White, Matt Williams, and Eddie Ray Zachary).

The songs they sang, on segregated black prisons in Texas, were a source of group unity, cultural survival, and spiritual transformation while they worked as day laborers cotton picking, sugarcane cutting, or flat weeding. One imagines that some of these songs and, particularly, the mock sermon that also appears on the record, were some of the few sources of joy and humor in their lives.
      Jackson’s recordings of these songs is an important document of the culture and period, but as “re-performed” over the originals by Berryman, McGruder, and Moore, become something far more important that simple folklore history.
       As Los Angeles Times theater critic, Charles McNulty quite brilliantly describes it:

Here, a context is amicably established. But something occult-like manages to occur all the same.
the three performers begin to meld their voices with those on the LP. Matching every contour of breath and sound in a stereophonic séance linking African American generations, they channel history through the recording.

     But something else happens in songs such as “Raise ‘em up Higher,” “Move Along ‘Gator,” “Don’t Be Uneasy,” “Rattler,” “Just Like a Tree Planted by the Water,” and “Forty-four Hammers,” worksongs and spirituals. We suddenly realize through the skillful contemporary performances that these men were not just lowly and unhappy spirits of the past, but in singing these songs, were remarkable performers and creators, making their nearly impossible lives over into something that we generally call art. These seemingly lost souls, in a way not so dissimilar from the presumably “saved” souls of the all-women Shaker community used that art to express their isolation and fears of being lost within the larger world in which they existed. In both cases, they realized they were living in a kind of out-of-time world not terribly dissimilar from the one presented in the popular Broadway musical, Brigadoon. Music was their only link with one another and the world at large.
     I think, having heard a couple of the songs on this remarkable recording without reinterpretation, that we might be utterly horrified by the desperation that comes from the voices who originally sang these pieces. These are men on the chain gang, who realized that in order to get any of their terrifying tasks accomplished they had to work together. As Jackson’s book, Wake Up Dead Man quotes:

       The way we do it, we do it by time. We have a steady rock. Everybody
       raise their axe up and come down at the same time, just rock. I guess
       that might a came from boats together, just work together.

     And then there are the wonderfully eccentric pieces such as “T. B. Tees Toast,” “Assassination of the President,” and the preaching parody, “Daniel in the Lion’s Den,” that suddenly remind you how men working on the Ramsey and Ellis farms stimulated their amazingly creative and comic imaginations.
      If this music and speech might have been seen to emanate from a distant past, we recognize in this production that it is still alive and emotionally fulfilling even today. And I am so appreciative for The Wooster Group and Eric Berryman for bringing back into the present so that we might experience the pain and joy these men suffered and experienced.

Los Angeles, February 2, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (February 2019).

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