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Rattler Makes a Day

The Wooster Group: The B_Side, REDCAT, Feb. 1, 2019 —

Related Posts: Tis a Gift to Be Not-Simple, The Cassandra Syndrome,  A Sign of Life from the Post-Dramatic, Vieux Carré, LeCompte and Co.

The Wooster Group does this thing they’ve developed where the actors listen to some prerecorded text and re-enact it for us. The technique straddles the hi-lo divide between Bertolt Brecht on the one side, and your local karaoke bar on the other. Endlessly fascinating to anyone working in theatre, the technique turns the actor into a living, breathing version of a puppet, channeling or transmitting the work of an other. If you know your theatre theory you know that the transcendent eloquence of puppets is in no way to be underestimated. As Kleist put it in an influential essay, On the Marionette Theatrepuppets have the advantage of being entirely free, in their expressive movements, of affectation. This is often the effect of the performances the Woosters put on— in their tight focus on the strictly technical challenge of hitting their marks at the right time, the actors reveal themselves more completely.

I always respond to the Wooster’s experiments with this approach to performance, but never quite so much as in the B-Side: “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons” a Record Album Interpretation, which ran at REDCAT in early February. B-Sidewas conceived by the performer Eric Berryman, directed by Kate Valk and it features Berryman, Jasper McGruder and Philip Moore. I saw the piece on a Friday night, and was back for the Sunday matinee to see it again.

What is it like to live in a world in which being hunted by a dog is a common enough occurance to compose a work song about it? How about a world where you are forced to run from where you slept to where you must work, armed men riding alongside on horseback, and if you falter you will be shot and killed? I really don’t know, but the men singing the songs Berryman and colleagues ventriliquize know because these are the basic realities of their daily lives. They are black Americans who were accused and convicted of various crimes within the courts of white Americans, and then served time in prison work farms around the Trinity and Brazos river in East Texas in the 1960s. The music was recorded by a folkorist, and released under the title: “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons.” Many years later Berryman happened upon the record and, struck by the haunting beauty of the music, began to play it over and over again in his apartment in Harlem. Hearing about Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation (2015), the theatre piece the Wooster Group made out of a recording of religious hymns, Berrymen went to see the production. Alive to the potential, he was composing an email to Kate Valk, who had directed Shaker Spirituals, when he ran into her at a tea house he was working in as a waiter. That’s how B-Sidecame to be. Berryman tells this story in a brief preamble to the performance, and then the singing begins.

Berryman introduces each track or number, providing some context and maybe reading some of the liner notes about the piece. Sometimes he reads from a book (Wake Up Dead Man: Hard Labor and Southern Blues) he has on stage, a book written by the folklorist Bruce Jackson, who originally recorded the music and now teaches at SUNY Buffalo. Transmitting the songs as they emerge, Berryman and his two collaborators become transparent and oracular mediums stripping away the intervening decades to literally raise the dead, and bring these singers back to life on stage. Along with the voices comes knowledge of a life-world stripped to the bone, devoid of anything resembling a right or a privilege, much less comfort. These men know, for example, what it’s like to be hunted by dogs, and they sing about it in a remarkable song called Rattler.

Rattler, Berryman tells us in his preamble, was a common name for a dog kept by the guards of these work camps, a dog trained to track escaped inmates. In the terminology of the song itself, Rattler is a “ni**er” dog. The song circles around this dog Rattler as he works a “marrow bone,” the inmates wondering whether he’ll drop the bone and go chase a recent escapee. This man has been gone a long time now, but Rattler will catch him nonetheless, we strongly suspect, because that’s what Rattler does. Even along those new trails this convict has taken, even after all the lead time that convict enjoys, Rattler is going to find his man, who will then be killed. And the marrow bone will be waiting for him when Rattler gets back. Berryman and his two singers run through the call and response song-chant about Rattler, the eerie melody delivered with an incessant and infectious beat, and when the song is over there is a long silence followed by thunderous applause.

The applauding audience, it won’t surprise you, was almost entirely white. On the first night I was there a friend and I were talking about how increasingly difficult it is to engage people in the kinds of collective projects we have been completing for years. There’s a sense that we are all living now in a defensive crouch, our world torn into little bits by emails and texts and Twitter feeds dominated by news of unmentionable maniacs who have seized control of our collective destinies. It is not just that the Republican party is attempting to reverse-engineer apartheid in the US by way of voting restrictions and gerrymandering. Rather it is that all of us who do not have hundreds of millions of dollars are in the same bucket as those we have long assumed ourselves to be very distant from, the bucket marked “the abject,” or perhaps more simply “those who don’t matter.” We sit back somewhat alarmed as our democracy (such as it is) is dismantled, from behind the fake populism the uber wealthy have spent decades gussying up. It is long past time to take sides in this struggle, perceiving the very real threat for what it is. And, of course, doing so entails taking stock of the role anti-black racism has always played in the political economy of the US of A.

Other songs and spoken word “toasts” address other aspects of the life experience of a segment of society that urgently insists on being understood. Hearing the voices of those long dead inmates delivered by their descendents in the exact cadences and tones was a remarkable experience. This is the way the body remembers, in this case the traumatized African body, so crucial to the shape of our present historical moment. At REDCAT I recognized all this in the quietly devastating patience in the expressions of the three black performers at the close of the piece, bowing to our applause. “Yes,” their expression said to me, “that’s the stuff you all are just starting to understand.” “You suddenly notice,” they said, “the legacy of your long ignorance of what we, as black Americans, are always undergoing.” “Welcome to the waking world,” they said.

In the audience, my friend and I were talking about the sense of assault I decribe above. It’s been rising for a while but now it has reached a point where you just don’t hear back from people. They’re hiding in basements, maybe. It’s the same evil we hear in these songs, men like Jack Diamond who carried a luger and gave Stagger Lee a run for his money in the cruelty department. Men so harsh they made the devil himself feel insecure, the very forward edge of the white man’s vicious cruelty. Another song is about the sad day a president got shot. At first I thought it was Lincoln but it was Kennedy, the lament visceral, the day a calamity for all Americans, but especially black Americans. These men sang to keep from getting whipped or killed (the two could be the same, a whipping often ending in death). And this had been going on for many generations, many decades, centuries in point of fact—a level of brutality unimaginable to us today (even though, of course it is ongoing), sublimated into songs that made the simple endurance of the day bearable.  

Another phrase haunted me from the evening at REDCAT with Berryman and his crew. Laboring all day long under the constant threat of being killed, the goal was to “make a day,” to survive, in other words. The phrase came up in the first passage Berryman read from Up Dead Man, and again later in one of the songs. A certain reverence hung over the entire evening. For the last song Berryman sits and watches with us footage from an actual work farm, twenty inmates in a line dressed in white wielding hoes as they sing. “This is life,” they say. “Bare life, which is the life we are all living.” “Come on down into the water,” they say. “It’s all around us,” they say. “There is nothing else—the only other thing there is, white man, is nothing.”

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