Our inescapable past.

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The B-Side: “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons,” A Record Album Interpretation. Photo credit: Bruce Jackson

For all it’s seeming simplicity, the Wooster Group’s latest show is complicated, dense experience.

Let’s start with the  title: “The B-Side: “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons,” A Record Album Interpretation.”

What’s a record album interpretation?

In simplest terms, it’s a company of actors recreating a record live.  The actors put on the record, that record is played in earpieces that only they hear, and the actors simultaneously performs (or re-perform) the song on the album.  The last piece the Wooster Group did like this was “Early Shaker Spirtuals” at REDCAT several years ago. While it sounds nutty, the reality is actually stunning. It’s not simply an act of singing along, it’s an attempt to as closely as possible match the original.

Comparatively speaking “Early Shaker Spirituals” was a simple affair.  A group of white women singing the simple religious songs of an isolated community.  It was beautiful, simple, pristine.

“The B-Side: “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons” is no less spiritual or powerful but the experience of watching (or maybe better witnessing it) demands a different attention.

The staging is simple.  Center stage a metal table with a record player, several chairs, a stool.

The presentation is painfully simple.  Few words more than an introduction of the track explaining the the context of the work to be done and sung.

The three African-American performers re-animate the songs a-capella.  Considering for a moment just the performances, the song’s harmonies are moving and soaring - transcending the three voices to create a sound far larger than would seem possible.  There is a temptation to lose one’s self in these voices.

Then you remember the context, the reality underpinning these songs.

The album being recreated and re-sung is a collection of recordings made inside the segregated prison work camps in Texas in 1964.  The songs songs to cut trees to hoe fields. They have vivid images of the brutality of prison guards and prison dogs.

These are men on a segregated work gang.  These are black men doing slave labor and singing about it.

How do you process these songs? What do you do with the beauty contained in these voices?

That’s the question confronting a mostly white audience in Los Angeles.

Do you simply revel in them?  Appreciating them as art transcending the violence? Or do you focus on the circumstances?

This tension grows with each song as the virtuosity of the performances attempt to capture what is contained on the original 1964 album.

The last track on side two of the album, the final song of the evening, is simply played for the audience on the turntable.  The actor who created the project and sang most of the evening’s songs, Eric Berryman, sits quietly watching a video of the unceasing rhythm of a chain gang pounding earth.

In that simplicity is a complicated inescapable past.

Sadly, The Wooster Group was only at REDCAT for one weekend.  “The B-Side: “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons,” A Record Album Interpretation.” will play in New York at St. Anne’s Warehouse in March.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.