EXCLUSIVE: The Wooster Group, one of New York’s most long-lived experimental theater companies and stage home of Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man), Kate Valk (The Manchurian Candidate) and the late Spalding Gray (Swimming To Cambodia), will unveil its latest multi-media excursion into American culture next month with The B-Side: “Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons” at its storied Soho theater, the Performing Garage.
The show will begin performances October 25 and run through November 12, followed by a reprise of the company’s stylistically related piece, Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation, December 7 through 17.
The B-Side is based on performer Eric Berryman’s interest in “Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons,” an album recorded in 1964 by folklorist Bruce Jackson. The LP features work songs, blues, spirituals, preaching and toasts performed by a group of inmates in the Lone Star State’s then-segregated agricultural prison farms. Berryman plays the album and transmits the material live, channeling, with the aid of an in-ear receiver, the voices of the men on the record. He’s accompanied by Jasper McGruder and Philip Moore. Berryman also provides context from his conversations with Jackson, a writer, photographer and professor at SUNY Buffalo.
After seeing Early Shaker Spirituals in 2015, Berryman brought his album to the group and began a collaboration on The B-Side, taking a similar approach. “After I saw Early Shaker Spirituals,” he told Deadline, “I was inspired to have the black convict work-song tradition of these men honored in the same way.”
The new show comes at a time when the notion of “cultural appropriation” (a phrase that might have been invented for the Wooster Group’s occasional demurrers) has prompted spirited debate across the chattering classes. The 42-year-old collective is best known for accessorizing stage classics – among them Hamlet, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones and Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré – with multimedia interpolations including film clips and video, discredited presentational forms such as black-face, and other interpretive interventions, in order to cast the works in a new light. Its international reputation has been enhanced by critical acclaim, though the authors and estates of those works haven’t always delighted in the PoMo presentations.
Early Shaker Spirituals is based on a 1976 album of Shaker songs recorded by the sisters of the Shaker community in Sabbathday Lake, Maine, which Wooster Group director Elizabeth LeCompte, Valk and other members of the troupe had visited. The piece features Cynthia Hedstrom, LeCompte, Frances McDormand, Bebe Miller and Suzzy Roche presenting live renders of the songs. The performances are complemented by dancers Matthew Brown, Modesto Jimenez, Bobby McElver and Andrew Schneider, with Jamie Poskin serving as interlocutor, reading from the album’s liner notes.