Review: ‘The B-Side’ Is an Extraordinary Masterclass in Listening

Before he sets needle to vinyl, Mr. Berryman gives us a bit of matter-of-fact introduction to what we are about to hear and how this performance came into being. Several years ago, he had seen “Early Shaker Spirituals.” While working in a Chinese tea shop as a waiter, he met that show’s director, the Wooster stalwart Kate Valk, and told her he had an idea for her.

And so Ms. Valk wound up staging “The B-Side.” It is a task to which she — and a design team overseen by Elizabeth LeCompte, the Wooster Group’s artistic director, with lighting by Ryan Seelig and sound by Eric Sluyter — have brought a rigorous elegance and clarity.

Mr. Berryman’s prefatory remarks are delivered with the smooth, Everyman diction you associate with actors doing voice-overs or pitching their résumés at auditions. It is not a tone that prepares you for the voice — no, make that voices — that subsequently emanate from Mr. Berryman and his two fellow performers, Philip Moore and Jasper McGruder.

For what these men do is something you have probably done when alone at home. They sing along with the record, their voices layering and merging with, in this case, those of convicts doing hard labor a half-century ago. Perhaps unlike you, Mr. Berryman and company do so with a concentration, lucidity and visceral force that suggest profound and old acquaintance with the music.

I mean, really, really old — as in centuries old. Not that any of these performers are geriatric. But they become conduits for the songs of prisoners who were themselves conduits for an oral tradition that stretches back to at least the early days of slavery in this country. This is music that feels viral not in the technological sense of current usage, but in the sense of residing in the bloodstream.

Mr. Berryman occasionally annotates the separate numbers (there are 14 in total) with readings of passages from Mr. Jackson’s book of oral history, “Wake Up Dead Man: Hard Labor and Southern Blues.” As in Mr. Berryman’s introduction to the show, none of these descriptions is politically or emotionally shaded. They’re neutral, so as not to block our view of the main event here.

That’s the music, of course, and the recorded spoken-word toasts. Performed a cappella, the songs spin tales of mythologically mean prison guards, and loves and lives lost, and the backbreaking purgatory of unendingly repetitive physical tasks.

The actors do not try to re-create the wood-hacking and hoeing that was the daily lot of the men they are channeling. Mostly, they are uncommonly still, conflating the acts of singing and listening. Gestures and movements are severely rationed, so that each one reads incisively.

Only once does Mr. Berryman fully cut loose, to deliver a parody of an evangelical spiel, which releases him from the aural backdrop of the record and has him sprinting into the audience as an animated cartoon of a money-collecting preacher. Entitled “Daniel in the Lion’s Den,” it is the penultimate piece in the show.

For the final number, the work song “Forty-Four Hammers,” Mr. Berryman falls silent to become the quintessential listener again. He takes a chair and watches old grainy film showing an unbroken line of chain-gang members chopping wood in unison. (Robert Wuss is the video designer.)

That found footage is projected against images, on a sleek monitor, of Mr. Berryman’s apartment in Harlem, where his vinyl record collection fills shelves. His home could be said to have always been the setting for this show — or rather any place where you feel safe developing an intense and intimate relationship with the art of others.

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