Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The B-Side: "Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons," A Record Album Interpretation - Where messages can be found between the lines

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

People of a certain age may recall the joy of going through dusty bins of vinyl recordings at a record store or flea market and seeing one that unexpectedly caught their eye. Said discovery opening a window to a world the finder never new existed and which was now long forgotten by all but a precious few. Such is the effect one has after attending "The B-Side: Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons,” A Record Album Interpretation. The show being the brainchild of actor Eric Berryman and presented by The Wooster Group at St. Ann’s Warehouse.

Berryman came across "The B-Side”, which was released in 1965, while searching the virtual offering found on Amazon. Intrigued by this particular album, and after undertaking some appropriate due diligence, he began working with The Wooster Group to create an interpretive work that wonderfully succeeds in enfolding the audience into the music and feeling of said material. More than simply playing the various tracks, or “bands” as they are referred to here, Berryman adds just enough narrative to make those who have little or no knowledge of this type of music, or the circumstances under which they were recorded, to be able to understand exactly what the words presented mean. The songs painting a picture that is quiet, melodic and not very pretty.

Eric Berryman in The B-Side: "Negro Folklore From The Texas State Prisons," A Record Album Interpretation.  At St. Ann's Warehouse.  Photo by Teddy Wolff.

Popular culture has long had a tendency to romanticize certain situations, especially where music is involved. The work these prisoners were given, doing manual labor on what were basically chain gangs - with tasks ranging from logging to picking cotton and cutting sugar cane - were anything but. While these men often sang to keep their spirits up or to remind themselves they still had their faith - as evidenced by the song "Just Like A Tree Planted By The Water" - many of the others contain bitter warnings, grim reminders and instructions for survival. One such example of this being "Rattler". On the surface a song about a dog employed by the prison guards; but in reality, a mournful dirge about escaping prisoners the dog is trained to catch until they can be brought back, or killed. There's also "If You See My Mother”, a song seemingly about prisoners working together in the fields cutting grass, but actually a warning to every man so engaged not to fall behind the rest. For if they did, they might be whipped by the guards who saw them as not doing their share of the work.

Adding to the flavor of the songs and also making the music more three-dimensional, as it were, are the efforts of Berryman, Jason McGruder and Philip Moore as they sing the songs aloud; accompanied by the music and vocals from the record itself. This method allowing the company to further bring those songs to life while helping those in attendance understand just what kind of a world the prisoners were living in when these tracks - some sung, some consisting of spoken words - were originally recorded.

Berryman in particular does an excellent job with the material. He becoming a virtual chameleon when it comes to accents and expressions as he helps bring forth the different moods, speech patterns and dialects from the recording. Most importantly, he lets the songs themselves take center stage. He providing only a brief overall introduction to the work at the beginning, as well as some quick descriptions before the different pieces begin.

(L-R) Eric Berryman, Jasper McGruder, Philip Moore in The B-Side: "Negro Folklore From The Texas State Prisons," A Record Album Interpretation.  At St. Ann's Warehouse.  Photo by Teddy Wolff.

The only major problem is that it’s sometimes hard to clearly hear all of the song lyrics when the record is being played, and thus fully comprehend their meaning. In his intro, Berryman mentions the difficulties he himself had when first listening to the album. He using folklorist Bruce Jackson 's book “Wake Up Dead Man: Hard Labor and Southern Blues” to help him better appreciate exactly what the album contained. Jackson also being the person who recorded these various songs in 1964. However, it would have been nice to translate this same clarity to the audience via a glossary of some sort in the show program, with some simple definitions and explanations.

Kate Valk’s direction works fine, the show and songs nicely segueing from one track to the next. Though the last few bands are presented without any narration; the use of which would have been helpful to make thing just a bit more complete and well-rounded.

The term “B-Side” usually refers to a song not as important as the tune most people would be buying the record for in the first place; i.e. the so-called “A-Side”. Yet the “B-Sides” of records throughout history have yielded some unexpected musical gems. Such is definitely the case with The Wooster Group’s latest presentation. Sobering, powerful and hitting home, especially in the final number, thanks to a grainy black-and-white video accompanying the music, this B-Side gets an A+ in delivering its message, with a A- in overall presentation.

Featuring: Eric Berryman, Jasper McGruder, Philip Moore.

The B-Side: “Negro Folklore From 
Texas State Prisons,” A Record Album Interpretation

Production Design: Elizabeth LeCompte
Lighting Design: Ryan Seelig
Sound Design: Eric Sluyter
Video Design: Robert Wuss
Costume Design: Enver Chakartash
Musical Director: Gareth Hobbs
Stage Manager: Erin Mullin
Video Engineer: Wladimiro Woyno
Lighting Board Operator: Emery Reyes
Technical Fellow: Danasia Miller
Set Building: Joseph Silovsky Studios
Technical Director: Jacob Bigelow
Production Manager: Bona Lee
Producer: Cynthia Hedstrom
General Manager & Associate Producer: Pamela Reichen
Marketing & Development: Mike Farry
Archivist: Clay Hapaz
Arts-in-Education & Outreach: Michaela Murphy
Director: Kate Valk 

St. Ann 's Warehouse
45 Water Street
Brooklyn Bridge Park, Brooklyn
Tickets: 718-254-8779, 866-611-4111 or
Running Time: 60 minutes, no intermission
Closes: March 31, 2019

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Daddy - Looking Behind The Eyes

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Making a relationship work becomes problematic when those involved are not completely honest about what they want in such a union. It's a message that rings loud and clear in Jeremy O. Harris’ powerful new work, Daddy, currently having its world premiere at The Pershing Square Signature Center; as presented by The New Group and Vineyard Theatre.

In Los AngelesCalifornia, Franklin (Ronald Beet), a young gay black man, is riding high. An aspiring artist from a factory town, he's preparing for his first solo show - called “Daddy” - while also having caught the eye of Andre (Alan Cumming), a white, middle-aged self-described "collector" with a somewhat unsavory reputation. Accepting Andre’s offering to move into his expansive Bel Air home until his show, Franklin spends his first night being awed by the numerous works of art his new patron has on display, while also engaging him in a discussion on what the value of art really means. The young man also making full use of his host’s massive swimming pool - an excellent job by set designer Matt Saunders. Andre, on the other hand, is more interested in taking his new guest to bed and discovering any other special talents Franklin might have.

Ronald Peet in “Daddy” by Jeremy O. Harris, directed by Danya Taymor. A co-production from The New Group and Vineyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center. PHOTO CREDIT: Monique Carboni. 

It soon becomes obvious Franklin is looking for a father figure in more ways than one. He seeking someone who will love him, take care of him, buy things for him, and above all, approve of whatever he does. Approval being something Franklin never had from his own father, who he never knew, and which he does not get from his mother, Zora (Charlayne Woodard), who has family issues of her own. This is also the reason Franklin never calls Zola when he's away from home. Something Zora is quick to remind him about.

As time passes, Franklin’s relationship with Andre deepens to the point that he begins changing the focus of his artistic creations. Altering these objects (initially little black dolls) which indicate how he seems himself, to how he sees others. Indeed, the entire play often has a stream of consciousness feel – complete with musical interludes. However, Franklin’s perception of how he sees the world, and those around him, is not something others in his orbit may willingly accept. They interpreting certain events with a vision quite different from his. 

The play's use of sex, art and viewpoint makes for an intriguing concept. Especially when Zora, a highly religious woman, arrives for the premiere of her son’s show. As Daddy continually straddles the line between comedy and drama, the playwright delights in confounding any audience expectations of where things are headed by regularly adding new factors to the narrative. So that what first seemed certain seems less so as the show progresses. These changes also highlighting the show’s underlying message that one cannot be honest with others until they are first honest with themselves. Many of the characters keeping their own feelings tightly bottled up, resulting in their being trapped in a sort of emotional limbo and thus unable to move forward.

Ronald Peet and Charlayne Woodard in “Daddy,” by Jeremy O. Harris, directed by Danya Taymor, A co-production from The New Group and Vineyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center. PHOTO CREDIT: Monique Carboni. 

It’s this feeling of not knowing what’s coming next that really makes the show click, while also keeping the audience’s attention focused throughout the almost three-hour running time. The tight script helped immeasurably by a top-notch cast, whose interplay with one another meshes perfectly. None of the leads anything less than fully three-dimensional.

Peet excellently portrays Franklin with a continual air of youthful exuberance as the character finds himself entering a world he has never known. One completely free from the restrictions set down by his mother. Franklin at times also showing major flashes of immaturity. Especially when confronted with issues he is nowhere near ready to face. Eventually Franklin finds himself quite literally caught between Zora and Andre's respective hopes for his future, with nothing less than his very soul as the ultimate prize. Or at least his own personal sense of identity.

Cumming is excellent as Andre, the one person who evolves the most during course of the play. A man who previously enjoyed his sexual games of catch and release, he now finds himself ready for more than that. Though he still has a way to go when it comes to connecting emotionally. Andre being used to operating more on a materialistic level than a personal one. Something quite evident when he tries to reach out to Zora. While a fuller back-story for Andre is not needed in the context of the play – his actual history being only hinted out – it still would have been to see.

Woodard does a standout job as Zora. Initially coming off both as a caring mom and fervent believer, she is also liberal enough to have long since accepted her son’s homosexuality – if she ever had a problem with it to begin with. However, while her faith may have gotten her through some hard times over the years, she has still not been able to come to terms with regards to Franklin's father. An issue which she has since transferred onto her son. As seen with her continual backhanded comments and occasional outright accusations; some of which come with a racial context. To Harris' credit, he never makes Zora a hypocrite. She acknowledging her errors in judgment when she knows she's in the wrong, but still has a large blind spot when it comes to putting her own past in order.

Kahyun Kim and Tommy Dorfman work well as Franklin's friends. Kim in particular giving a hilarious rendition of a total airhead, before revealing she has certain daddy issues of her own. Dorfman meanwhile getting in some good licks as someone with his own secret, and an increasing disgust in what he sees happening to Franklin. Hari Nef does a nice turn as Alessia, the gallery owner where Franklin has his show. Her final scene, during a sequence that reminds one of The Last Supper, is superb.

Kahyun Kim and Tommy Dorfman in “Daddy,” by Jeremy O. Harris, directed by Danya Taymor. A co-production from The New Group and Vineyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center. PHOTO CREDIT: Monique Carboni.

Danya Taymor's direction is tight and controlled. Like Harris, she knows exactly what she wants each section of the story to say and how to bring it forth. The one glaring exception being a sudden blackout in the penultimate scene. The abruptness of which caused many in the audience to think the play was over. A cleaner bridge from that sequence to the next would have certainly made for a better transition.

Harris has subtitled his work “A Melodrama”. A term which has been defined as “a sensational dramatic piece with exaggerated characters and exciting events intended to appeal to the emotion". This premise also ties in with the sudden dramatic breaks at the end of certain scenes - nicely handled by sound designer Lee Kinney - as well as various tuneful side journeys, many of which are delivered via a Gospel Choir with a Greek Chorus effect. Carrie Compere, Denise Manning and Onyie Nwachukwu doing a pitch perfect job here musical-wise, as well as quietly adding to the background of various scenes when needed.

In “Daddy” each of the characters start out with their own personal illusions of self, only to find themselves stripped bare for all to see by show’s end. What is ultimately revealed is not always pretty, but altogether fascinating to watch as it plays out.

Featuring: Ronald Peet (Franklin), Alan Cumming (Andre), Tommy Dorfman (Max), Kahyun Kim (Bellamy), Charlayne Woodard (Zora), Hari Nef (Alessia), Carrie Compere (Gospel Choir), Denise Manning (Gospel Choir), Onyie Nwachukwu (Gospel Choir)

Daddy: A Melodrama
by Jeremy O. Harris

Set Design: Matt Saunders
Costume Design: Montana Levi Blanco
Lighting Design: Isabella Byrd
Sound Design: Lee Kinney
Hair, Wig and Makeup Design: Cookie Jordan
Original Score and Instrumental Arrangements: Lee Kinney
Original Vocal Music and Vocal Arrangements: Darius Smith & Brett Marcus
Music Supervision: Brett Marcus
Intimacy and Fight Direction: Claire Warden
Movement Direction: Darrell Grand Moultrie
Doll Design: Tschabalala Self
Production Supervisor: Five Ohm Productions
Production Consultant: Adrian White
Production Stage Manager: Valerie A. Peterson
Casting: Judy Henderson, CSA
Public Relations: Bridget Klapinski
Advertising: AKA
Directed by Danya Taymor

Presented by The New Group and Vineyard Theatre
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street