The B-Side is a big deal

UB professor Bruce Jackson's prison recordings are a sleeper hit in NYC



Phillip Moore, Eric Berryman, Jasper McGruder, and Kate Valk rehearsing THE B-SIDE

Photo by Bruce Jackson

 

The B-Side

A Wooster Group production based on Bruce Jackson’s recording
Four performances at UB Black Box Theater:

February 8 and 9, 7:30 p.m.
February 10 and 11: 2:00 p.m.
Visit buffalo.edu/cai.html for tickets (tickets are free, but must be reserved)

 

Fifty years after it was made, an obscure album of prison worksongs recorded by University at Buffalo professor Bruce Jackson has become the sleeper hit of New York’s theater season. The B-Side, a Wooster Group theatrical production of Jackson’s recording, Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons, finished a month-long sold-out run last November at the Performing Garage. New York Times critic Ben Brantley called it one of the ten best productions of the 2017 season (a list that includes A Doll’s House, Part 2 and Springsteen on Broadway, among others). “This was conceptual theater at its purest and most precise,” Brantley says, also noting that it was “immaculately staged.” Other critics share Brantley’s admiration—Peter Marks’ review in the Washington Post calls the show “ravishing” with a “galvanizing, hypnotic impact.”

 

This ravishing show is coming to Buffalo in February.

 

For many decades, Jackson has been documenting, through various means, the aspects of American culture that fascinate him. Often, he has chosen to bring to our attention the darkest, most brutal aspects of that culture. That’s certainly the case with his prison projects, which include the book and film, Death Row. The recordings that make up The B-Side were made during Jackson’s first visits to Texas prisons.

 

“I did the recording in summer 1964, Freedom Summer, the summer Schwerner, Cheney, and Goodman were murdered in Mississippi,” Jackson recalls. “It was my first visit to the Texas prisons. I’d visit several more times in the next four years. I was primarily interested in recording black convict worksongs, which descended from slavery. Some of the prisons were located on former plantation sites.”

 

Three projects resulted from these visits: the albums Negro Folklore from Texas Prisons (1965) and the Grammy-nominated Wake Up Dead Man, and the book Wake Up Dead Man: Afro-American Worksongs from Texas Prisons (1972).

 

Jackson (right) in 1965 on Ellis Prison Farm with Joseph “Chinaman” Johnson and W. D. Alexander, two of the singers who figure in the 1965 album

Prison photo courtesy of Jackson, photo by one of the convicts

 

Given that a, it’s a vinyl album, and b, it was made in 1965, it seems remarkable that Negro Folklore from Texas Prisons would suddenly receive all this attention. Jackson explains that actor and tea maven Eric Berryman was the catalyst: “Eric is a vinyl collector. He came across a used copy of the 1965 album online, bought it, and fell in love with it. He learned everything on it. He emailed me with some questions, then he called, then he ran into Kate Valk in the tea shop where he was working as a tea apprentice. He knew she’d directed Early Shaker Spirituals [Frances McDormand and Suzzy Roach both star in this December ’17 production], so he pitched her on this one.”

 

Like The B-Side, Early Shaker Spirituals is subtitled “A Record Album Interpretation,” which, quite literally, is exactly what happens in both productions. The album is played and the actors sing and speak along with it. Both still images from Jackson’s 1965 recordings and from this production show the prisoners relaxed, sometimes smiling, seeming to find a momentary release from the harsh realities of their situation. Post critic Marks calls this “history in melody, an a cappella song cycle that reveals how men sentenced to hard labor endured, forging bonds through music.”

 

The B-Side’s director, Kate Valk, is a founding member of the Wooster Group, the groundbreaking experimental theater group that includes Willem Dafoe, the late Spalding Gray, and Elizabeth LeCompte (who leads the theater), among other founding members. Valk’s style is called “pure, direct, and disciplined” (Hilton Als, New Yorker, 5/19/14).

 

The entire Wooster Group production, including all three cast members—Eric Berryman, Jasper McGruder, and Phillip Moore—and twelve crew members, will be here for the Buffalo production, which is being performed in UB’s intimate Black Box theater. Given the theater’s size and the fact that there are only four performances, it’s a certainty that The B-Side will sell out. Plans for accompanying talks and workshops with UB students are also in the works.            

 

Elizabeth Licata is editor of Spree.

 

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