What Does Prison Sound Like? Listen for Yourself at St. Ann’s Warehouse

Famed New York theater company The Wooster Group takes on “Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons.”

Philip Moore, Eric Berryman, and Jasper McGruder / Photo by Bruce Jackson/Courtesy of The B-Side

The long-out-of-print LP Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons stands as an important historical document in the tradition of capturing the black prison experience through recorded sound. It’s a field that includes the recent Zomba Prison Project; any number of contemporary rap recordings; the popular Ear Hustle podcast; 20th-century incarcerated performing bands like the Prisonaires; and the voluminous field recordings made by renowned ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax in the late 1940s. Lomax’s example provided the impetus for Negro Folklore’s producer, Bruce Jackson, to travel to Texas in the 1960s and record folk songs at multiple Southern penitentiaries.

The raw power and emotion of that album made it a memorable favorite for actor Eric Berryman. Inspired by legendary New York theater company The Wooster Group’s production, Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation, Berryman pitched and landed a creative collaboration with the group, resulting in a new piece titled The B-Side: Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons—A Record Album Interpretation. In researching the piece, Berryman and director Kate Valk met and spoke extensively with Jackson, now a professor at SUNY Buffalo, to provide greater context and insider details to the setting of the recording.

The Wooster Group St. Ann's Warehouse
Eric Berryman / Photo by Bruce Jackson/Courtesy of The B-Side

The B-Side’s presentation is spare but brutally effective. Following a brief introduction, the bulk of the piece is Berryman and his costars Jasper McGruder and Philip Moore quite literally singing along as they play the entire original vinyl album onstage. The songs are interspersed with excerpted readings from Jackson’s collection of oral histories, Wake Up Dead Man. There is little attempt to dramatize, interpret, or modernize the music; instead, the performance provides a peephole into the prisoners’ experience, draws unspoken parallels to the contemporary world, and honors the struggle and artistry of lost men.

Following a highly acclaimed off-Broadway run last year, Berryman and The Wooster Group are bringing The B-Side to Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse in March. Strong early reviews and a limited run make it an early must-see theater pick for 2019. Limited tickets for the show are on sale as of now, but before you buy, get familiar with the original album, available in its entirety for listening on YouTube.

The Wooster Group’s The B-Side: Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons
St. Ann’s Warehouse
45 Water Street, Dumbo
Friday, March 1—Sunday, March 31, 2019
Tickets start at $36

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