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Review: Wooster Group turns Texas inmates’ songs into the stirring theater of ‘The B-Side’

Review: Wooster Group turns Texas inmates’ songs into the stirring theater of ‘The B-Side’
Philip Moore, left, Eric Berryman and Jasper McGruder in the Wooster Group's "The B-Side: 'Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons,' A Record Album Interpretation." (Steve Gunther)

The Wooster Group has developed such a signature multimedia aesthetic over the decades that it’s refreshing to see this veteran avant-garde troupe willing to take a break from its playfully hermetic tradition and give straightforwardness a shot. Yet this being the Wooster Group, straightforwardness is not quite as straightforward as it appears.

“The B-Side: ‘Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons,’ A Record Album Interpretation,” which runs through Sunday at REDCAT, begins helpfully and somewhat uncharacteristically with an introduction.

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Dressed casually in tan pants, sneakers and a black T-shirt, actor Eric Berryman explains how “The B-Side” came about through a chance encounter with Wooster Group leading light Kate Valk at Berryman’s job at a tea house. Berryman had been so taken by the company’s “Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation,” which Valk directed, that he emailed her a pitch for another album interpretation, this one of a 1965 LP of worker songs, spirituals and spoken-word tracks recorded by folklorist Bruce Jackson.

Typically, the Wooster Group begins dizzyingly in media res, with theatergoers forced to surmise the rules of the game. Here, a context is amicably established. But something occult-like manages to occur all the same.

The album preserves for posterity the a cappella singing of inmates who labored on Texas’ then-segregated agricultural prison farms. Songs for cotton picking and sugarcane cutting (such as “Three Moore Brothers”) alternate with those for flat weeding (such as “Rattler,” which bears a common name for a penal farm dog).

Berryman, standing behind a turntable for a portion of the one-hour show, sets up some of the songs while two other cast members, Jasper McGruder and Philip Moore, listen attentively with their backs to us. (The expressions of these men while seated are obliquely projected on a TV screen.)

But as if communing with the spirits of the inmates, 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.

Berryman, who shares images of his Harlem apartment record collection, exudes a younger version of the relaxed urban contemporary vibe of his colleagues. But when they listen to one of the 14 tracks that snatch from oblivion a far too undocumented cultural legacy, they travel together across time.

Eric Sluyter’s seamless sound design helps to bridge temporal distances, as does the haunting film footage shown at the end, of chain-gang members chopping wood. (These ghostly images of hard labor flicker on a screen as Berryman loses himself in the work song “Forty-Four Hammers.”)

The album, which includes a mock sermon and exchanges that testify to both the joshing camaraderie and the cruel hardships of the convicts, takes us back not only half a century to when it was recorded. The music also intimates the period of slavery, when the rhythmic singing of forced labor was a source of stamina, sustenance and survival.

Valk’s direction imposes a reverential stillness onto the performers, who seem frozen at times by the auditory memories resounding in the air. Listening becomes a dramatic action — listening as a form of imaginative remembering. Blinded Gloucester in “King Lear” asserts that he can see feelingly. Berryman, McGruder and Moore hear that way.

Their unassuming manner of presentation can’t conceal that they are also stirring singers. At moments it seems as if they are amazed by how completely they become one with these voices. The bigger amazement is how they— and by extension we the audience — are able to harmonize with a history at once agonizingly harsh and perseveringly soulful.

“The B-Side,” a hybrid of exhibition and devised performance, might be atypical of Wooster Group practice. But in its conjuring of a lost or faded cultural past, the production takes its place alongside “Early Shaker Spirituals,” “The Town Hall Affair,” and last year’s brilliant homage to Tadeusz Kantor, “A Pink Chair (In Place of a Fake Antique).”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘The B-Side: “Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons,” A Record Album Interpretation’

Where: REDCAT, 631 W 2nd St., L.A.

When: 8:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday; ends Sunday.

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Tickets: $35-$45

Information: (213) 237-2800, REDCAT.org

Running time: 1 hour

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