The stars aligned one night and brought Kate Valk, a cofounder of the famed Wooster Group, into an East Village café called Tea Drunk, where Eric Berryman, a young server determined to pitch her a theater piece, happened to be working.
Berryman had appeared in a touring show called Steel Hammer, a SITI Company production by Julia Wolfe and Kia Corthron that examined the folkloric legend of John Henry, the African-American "steel-driving man." Berryman, who played John Henry, and his fellow actors, had done a significant amount research. An avid record collector, Berryman had amassed a collection of music pertaining to the piece, including a 1964 vinyl album recorded by folklorist Bruce Jackson called Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons.
At the same time, he saw a production of the famed Wooster Group called Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation. Vinyl is a common source material for the Wooster Group, and in this particular show, they used a 1976 L.P. recorded by the Sisters of the Shaker Community in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. The performers, including Wooster cofounder Elizabeth LeCompte and Oscar winner Frances McDormand, utilized every aspect of the album, down to scratches on the vinyl surface. Valk, who usually acts in the company's productions, shifted to the director's seat for this piece.
"I saw it and I said they should do this with black prison work songs," Berryman remembers. "The experience they created that I felt…I wanted people to have that about this black work-song music. I would like people to not forget about it. I started composing an email to the director."
But he had no idea how to get in touch with her.
"This is how much I didn't know back then," says Berryman, sitting across from Valk in the rear section of Tea Drunk on East Seventh Street. "I didn't know that this was her first time directing and that she is normally their leading actress. I composed an email to her on my phone but I never sent it. I didn't have her email address and I'm not good at finding people's emails cold. I asked a couple of people and they didn't have it, so I left it at that. But I saved the draft on my phone."
Then, a few months later, she walked in to Tea Drunk..
Kate Valk: I was here with my friend who was working in the theater.
Eric Berryman: I heard them talking about plays, and it made me go, "Oh, they're in the business."
Kate: I heard his voice. He was talking about a record store across the street and I asked him if he was a musician. He said, "No, I'm an actor, "and I said, "I'm not surprised, you have a really nice voice."
Eric: And then I said, "Are you guys in the business?" The guy goes, "Yeah, I'm an actor," and she goes—
Kate: I laughed, and I go, "Business? Well, I'm with—"
Eric: "I'm with this company called the Wooster Group" in a way that was almost like, "I don't know if you ever heard of us." And I went, "Get the f*ck out of town. I just saw one of your shows, and I loved it, Early Shaker Spirituals." She doesn’t know my name. I don’t know her name. I said, "Wait were you in it? "
Kate: "No, I directed it."
Eric: And I was like "Kate Valk?"
Kate: I said, "Yeah."
Eric: "I've been trying to contact you. I have an email drafted to you on my phone right now." I gave her the elevator pitch.
After the success of Early Shaker Spirituals, which used only one side of the album, Valk had been encouraged to do a follow-up piece encompassing the B-side. "In my heart, I knew I didn't want to do the same thing again. I wanted to do another piece, a complement to the Shaker show in terms of American folklore. His desire was out there in the world. He even formalized it in a letter. I was open to it. So the connection was incredible to me."
They met formally and talked. Valk encouraged Berryman to do his own thing: "I said, 'You're amazing. This material is amazing. What do you need us for? Go do your own record album interpretation, a la, inspired by, after. It's a tradition in art. I give you your blessing to go do it. And you said no. Well, put 'er there."
"The reason being," Berryman continues, "What I saw that night in Early Shaker Spirituals I know I couldn't figure out on my own. I wanted to learn how they did what they did. If I'm going to learn something, I want to get as close to the source as possible. I don't want to learn from conjecture."
The resulting piece, in which Berryman stars and Valk directs, is called The B-Side: Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons. This "record album interpretation" will run at the Performing Garage October 25-November 12, before a return engagement of the A-Side, Early Shaker Spirituals, December 7-17.
Like its predecessor, The B-Side uses the "album as both relic and artifact that provides the structure for the piece," Valk says. "Unless they do it, I don't add my own thing," Berryman adds. "There are times when coughs happen on the album, and I re-create it as much as possible. If someone drops out on the end of a word and you can't quite understand it, I'm trying to do that, but you can't leave people in the dark too much in theater." Bruce Jackson, who recorded the album, "opened the treasure trove to us." And Berryman did manage to find his email address, Valk notes with a laugh.
The goals for the two projects are similar, as well. Just as Valk wanted to bring the Shaker spirituals back into the cultural conversation, Berryman wanted to make sure that this music would not be forgotten. "I wanted it to be remembered as American music," he says, "to honor these men who were put through brutal conditions and created some really incredible artwork to survive. It only really existed in this form in the prison. The song kept them alive, but these guys didn't sing this music when they got free. It reminded them of a time they didn't want to go back to. But as a piece of culture, particularly for my generation, I want people to play it the same way they play a Bessie Smith record. Put these guys on."