THE B-SIDE (The Wooster Group): 2019 Fringe review

Photo by Bruce Jackson.

Photo by Bruce Jackson.

Unlike The Wooster Group’s outlandish revisions of classic theater pieces, The B-Side is as deferential and respectful of its source—songs sung by African-American prisoners in Texas while they worked—as it could and should be. The resulting production makes words like profound and thrilling sound pale and puny, so great is the show’s effect.

Based on an album of songs recorded in 1965 by folklorist Bruce Jackson; his liner-notes provide a brief introduction to each song. Eric Berryman, the lead singer, plays the record into his ear while he performs a song, replicating the original accents and voices. Two other men onstage, Jasper McGruder and Philip Moore, accompany him, and with the sometimes audible recording and their precision timing, it’s hard to tell how many men are singing: a world of misery is aurally evoked.

Minor revelations: the common phrase, “a hard row to hoe” turns out to mean the bad luck of having a field portion so overgrown that the worker inevitably falls behind and is then beaten. And one song all three men sing,“Just Like a Tree Planted by the Water,” the song that became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement and a song I was sure I knew, turns out to be a whole different thing when sung by prisoners working, literally, under the gun of the guard on horseback.

This is history that cannot and should not be denied; all praise to The B-Side.

[The Wooster Group at FringeArts, 140 N. Columbus Boulevard] September 5–8, 2019; fringearts.com/event/b-side

 

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About the author

Toby Zinman

Toby Zinman is a recently retired professor of English at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was a Fulbright professor at Tel Aviv University and a visiting professor in China. She publishes widely and lectures internationally on American drama. Her fifth book, Replay: Classic Modern Drama Reimagined, was published by Methuen, and she published the essay, "Visions of Tragedy in Contemporary American Drama," in 2017. Zinman is also the chief theater critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. She was named by American Theatre magazine as, “one of the 12 most influential critics in America.” Her travel writing has taken her all over the world, from dogsledding in the Yukon to hiking across England.