Voices that were never meant to be heard beyond prison walls or nearby work fields have become one of the more anticipated centerpieces of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. The B-Side, a documentary theater piece from New York’s Wooster Group that plays Sept. 5-8 at FringeArts, states its purpose with its subtitle: “Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons,” A Record Album Interpretation.
With a turntable and two small speakers, actor/singer Eric Berryman walks the audience through on-site 1964 prison recordings that constitute a cross section of southern African-American culture. Song titles include “Move Along 'Gator,” with vocals credited to the likes of Arthur “Lightning” Sherrod and C.B. “Snuffy” Kimble, who whistle, preach, and sing in voices that are high, clear, and purposeful. Some songs tell stories. Work songs dictated the pace of their days.
Theatrically, the element of communion comes in when Berryman and his two onstage colleagues, Jasper McGruder and Philip Moore, sing with the record album’s ghosts from a musically distant past.
“It’s such a merge,” said Berryman, "both technical and spiritual at the same time.”
“They’re literally channeling,” said director Kate Valk. “It’s a transduction through their bodies.”
The technical part: Berryman wears an earpiece to more clearly hear the recording, which is heard by the audience in layers with the live voices — in a mixture that shifts constantly throughout. Berryman often hangs back and lets the prerecorded elders start before he, McGruder, and Moore join in.
The spiritual part is when modern urbanite Berryman (born in Baltimore, based in New York) navigates country singing styles and echoes of West African traditions from previous generations. Strangely, it’s not that much of a stretch. “I’m one of those old-soul people,” said Berryman. “I feel like I was born in the wrong time period.”
The phantom presence onstage is the 1975 William Ferris video documentary, I Ain’t Lying, that captures African-American storytellers and bluesmen in Mississippi. It’s not heard at all and only seen by the onstage performers — not the audience — and functions to suggest physical gestures for Berryman to follow.
“At this point, it’s almost like I’m being supported by the men in the video,” said Berryman. “They’re there if I need them. They’ve become a third or fourth character. A kind of silent partner.”
Unexpected revelations are inevitable. Though spirituals are often associated with dark, booming bass voices like Paul Robeson, tenors seem to have dominated at Texas prisons. That’s what could be heard over longer distances in the field where the inmates were working.
The vocal leaders weren’t necessarily the best voices, but those whose sense of rhythm kept the men moving in the right places. Otherwise, they could be injured by farm equipment if they didn’t keep time.
The music was a necessity for the singers. Impressing listeners was not part of the equation. Berryman notes that the legendary blues guitarist Lead Belly (1888-1949) changed musically after he emerged from prison and became a celebrated performer. “He sped up a lot of his songs,” said Berryman. “I love Lead Belly, but people have to know that both versions of him existed.”
Neither Berryman nor Valk is a seasoned folklorist. A working New York actor with extensive credits in film, TV, and stage, Berryman discovered the album amid background work for the 2015 production of Steel Hammer, a Julia Wolfe piece drawing on the legends of John Henry.
In 2014, Valk had directed the like-minded Early Shaker Spirituals, A record album interpretation, based on a 1976 recording by the Maine-based Sisters of the United Society of Shakers.
Meeting by chance in a Lower East Side tea hangout, Tea Drunk, Berryman recognized Valk, a founding member of the Wooster Group since 1979, and pitched her his idea.
The starting point was getting the rights to the original Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons album on the Elektra label. Luckily, the rights had reverted only months previously to the man who recorded it, Bruce Jackson, then in his 20s and now 83. A professor of American culture at the University of Buffalo, he was happy to have his efforts reach a new audience.
As much as The B-Side is in step with the Black Lives Matter movement, the piece was born the night after the 2016 presidential election in a work-in-progress performance. “I knew no matter what happened with that election, people would need some place to go, and to go in public,” Valk said.
The show had a successful run in Taipei (Wooster Group often tours), had further acclaim at the Performing Garage in downtown Manhattan, and was immediately approached by the Philadelphia Fringe for the 2018 festival, which had to wait until after a run earlier this year at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.
You wonder if The B-Side and the Shaker piece are the start of a new theatrical sub-genre.
In fact, the Wooster Group is planning a new piece. Multiple turntables will be involved. Jackson, the Buffalo professor who made the original Texas recordings, is now an associate member of Wooster Group.
The subject will be “toasts,” not the sort of drinking tributes made on special occasions, but a little-known, alcohol-free African-American tradition involving rhymed couplets. It should be fun.
The B-Side: “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons” A Record Album Interpretation
Performances Sept. 5-8 at FringeArts, 140 N. Columbus Blvd.