Channeling the Past: Eric Berryman on The B-Side
Three men—Eric Berryman, Jasper McGruder, and Philip Moore—listen to an LP of songs and speeches recorded in 1965 in segregated Texas state prison farms, singing and talking along with the album. This is not your typical piece of theater, but The B-Side: “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons,” A Record Album Interpretation by The Wooster Group is a powerful experience. The voices of the performers blend with those on the album, capturing the humor and sorrow and bringing the men on the album to life. Between pieces, Berryman provides context from the liner notes and a book by Bruce Jackson, the folklorist who recorded the original LP. FringeArts talked with Eric Berryman in May of 2019 about this deeply moving piece.
FringeArts: How did you discover this album?
Eric Berryman: I was working on a piece some years ago on the Legend of John Henry, and found myself listening and searching for work songs, as John Henry in its original form was a slower tempo work song and not the faster tempo revival version that has become popular. In my quest to add some of the work song music to my tangible vinyl record collection I discovered Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons, never thinking it would become my next major project.
FringeArts: What appealed to you about it?
Eric Berryman: What I loved was that it wasn’t an album of just worksongs but a collection of more. Worksongs, blues, spirituals, preaching and toasts.
FringeArts: How did this project come about?
Eric Berryman: These questions are answered within the first few minutes of the show so I won’t say too much. But I had a desire to have this music heard by a larger audience than just myself. I saw a show Wooster Group put on, Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation. There was the simplest description, the record was played live, and the actors on stage brought it to life without much artifice. And I was able to hear and take in that music. I knew I had to find a way to work with this company and learn from them.
FringeArts: What connection do you feel with the original singers/speakers during the performance? How do you channel and pay respect to the individuals on the album?
Eric Berryman: The task at hand is the careful and active listening via my in ear receiver. Listening to the man I am channeling, I hope to bring his every nuance to you through my voice and body—his breath, his cough, his pitch. I try to not let my ideas of what he is doing creep in but simply to do what he is doing. So he comes to life in and on my body.
FringeArts: What role does the audience play in the interpretation?
Eric Berryman: This music is maybe the only genre of folk music that doesn’t posit an audience, it’s for the men singing it. It had a direct and serious function most of the time. So because of that the audience may play whatever role they wish, when you put your headphones in and press play, however listening manifests, do the same here. I think director Kate Valk has envisioned staging, simple yet clear to allow whatever kind of listening each audience members feels.
–Introductory text by Seth Boyce
What: The B-Side: “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons,” A Record Album Interpretation
When: September 5–8, 2019
Where: FringeArts, 140 North Columbus Boulevard
Created by The Wooster Group
Photos by Steven Gunther (featured), Teddy Wolff (above and below)