A Toast to Reviving Lost Art: An Inside View with Eric Berryman and Eric Sluyter

Issue Four: Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me
Lexie Waddy
January 19, 2024
Lexie Waddy

Lexie Waddy (she/her) is an actor and recent graduate from Rutgers University, Mason Gross School of the Arts. Her Rutgers Theatre Company credits include Sandra in Angela Davis’s School for Girls With Big EYES, Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, and Olga in Three Sisters. Other credits include Emily Webb in Our Town and Lauretta in The World’s Ending and Maybe That’s Kinda Hot. A highlight of her education was the opportunity to study at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, UK, where she learned Globe performance practices, Elizabethan culture, and Shakespearean text structure and analysis. She aims to create and contribute to work that challenges and disrupts expectations of what theatre and film “should” look like, and help facilitate a kinder, healthier, more inclusive artistic space and sociopolitical culture.

Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me took me entirely by surprise, which in and of itself is surprising, because I had the incredible opportunity of speaking with Eric Berryman (performer and collaborator) and Eric Sluyter (sound designer) to learn everything I could about this collaboration with The Wooster Group before I saw the show.

All that’s on stage is a drum set, desk and chair, soundboard, microphone, and monitor, along with a side cabinet and laptop off to the right. There’s a small amount of chairs on stage, and the rest of the seating is on risers covered in mats. The Performing Garage, where the show is now playing, is a small, intimate space. When cast member Jharis Yokely sits at the drum set and Berryman starts speaking into the mic, the piece morphs into a radio show or even a fireside chat. By the end of the play, it felt like having a drink and swapping stories with old friends.

Eric Berryman in Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me. Photo Credit: Marika Kent

Berryman recites toasts verbatim. An earpiece plays a recording of the source material and changes pace depending on the needs of the performance. Berryman makes it look effortless. Yokley is also a phenomenally talented drummer who shines in his solo moments. His presence was, as Berryman tells, director Kate Valk’s idea.

Berryman: [Kate] always thought that I should be on stage with a musician. Early on, she thought a string instrument…Then her and I were reminded of our love for this Korean folk form, Pansori, which is a sole storyteller who both sings and speaks. It’s an ancient form that goes on to this day. I fucking love it, I adore it… so it's a singer, male or female, telling these epic stories, Korean tales, and there is a single drummer with one kind of round drum and one stick… Sometimes he provides rhythmic support. Sometimes he provides accent. He's not just laying down a beat. I think there was a kind of agreement that a percussionist might be the move for this material. That brought in a whole new world of creativity for us.

We never lose focus on Berryman not only because of his phenomenal talent, skill, presence, poise, and command over the space and the text, but also because of Yokely’s unwavering focus and support of the stories being told, through both the music he plays and his grounded presence.

Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me is a collection of toasts, a not very well known piece of Black American history. Toasts are epic stories of men accomplishing mythic feats, practiced as an oral tradition, and told almost entirely in rhyming couplets.

Berryman: They do rhyme. There is a meter. I would say the general, blanketed kind of rhyme scheme is AA BB, but then to watch a toast teller break from that form, and then return to it within a toast is quite riveting and spectacular. Or sometimes they'll have a lot of internal rhyme.

In Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me, Berryman occasionally refers to the toasts as ballads. They are poetry. Song-like, but not necessarily a piece of music.

They are also, not always, and not always entirely, massive dirty jokes. This is where my initial nervousness about this performance kicked in, because I’m not the most forgiving when it comes to comedy. The moment I hear a joke that might be even the slightest bit offensive, I tend to disengage, and honestly on occasion, become judgemental. However, in speaking with Berryman and Sluyter, I realized that this team, this collaboration, was not only entirely well meaning, but dedicated to making sure that this source text was not presented in an exclusive way.

Jharis Yokley and Eric Berryman in Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me. Photo Credit: Marika Kent

Berryman: One of my goals personally is for people of color, specifically Black people, to come to this space and feel like –  “Aren't we the shit?”… Just for confirmation of what they already know, or if they feel like they have been told that's not the case. I'm there to say it is the fucking case. This is also why I love archival material, because we can go back very far for me to prove to you – not even prove to you, but to show you – that this is the case.  

Sometimes in this material, one might find that the laughter is coming at the expense of what's being done, or being said to the female body. And so I said, “Yeah, well, I definitely don't want to do that because I'm not thinking gendered in that way.” I am thinking of everybody, because as somebody that was raised by three generations of women, the style and the swagger that I hear in these toasts I heard from women as well. And existing in women. And so I said, “Okay, well, I gotta figure out a way to address that.” And none of what I said to you gets said in the show. And yet, we had a whole conversation about it in rehearsal. Stopped the room.

Sluyter: Many, many. Even now.

Berryman: Many conversations about it… Something that Kate and everybody else early on made me feel comfortable with, is that many of the ways that we address any of the potential issues of the toasts, we will address them in how we do the toasts. And not what we say about them. But it's how we do the toasts. If telling you about it before I do it or after I do it, makes you feel even better about it – more better than the actual doing of it – there's a potential problem.

What they managed to accomplish is to contextualize this text, which may or may not be offensive depending on your perception, and put the people that the jokes can seem to take advantage of or be at the expense of in positions of power, authority, and equality, so that the joke is no longer able to happen at the expense of them. One of my favorite examples of this is one particular toast during which a pimp and a sex worker essentially badmouth each other. It does have the potential to be so incredibly offensive, but the way that it’s contextualized made it so that the man in a technically higher position of power truly does not have any power.

Sluyter (on the conversations surrounding this toast): How do we give her the upper hand so that it’s funny if he's punching up? Which he is doing in the toast.

In the performance, when Berryman is portraying the sex worker, he lowers his voice, rather than raising his voice and playing her like a stereotypical characterization of a woman. He doesn’t make her a caricature. He puts her physically at an advantage: he sits taller, and looks down at where the other character would be or doesn’t even look at him. When he’s playing the character of the pimp, he raises his voice, immediately weakening him. He also is looking up physically as the character is spouting these insults, which takes all of the power away from those words. He is, as Sluyter says, “punching up.” This effectively removed my concerns about the piece, because they have contextualized it in a way which makes the audience understand that the character the joke would have been at the expense of is actually the character in the position of power.

A considerable force in this work was how they created the sound of the piece. Each toast’s sound is drastically different, with music either playing into the tone or against it. This was especially exciting in one toast, when a character is absolutely laying into another, saying pretty vile things, while in contrast, Yokley is laying down the chillest of beats throughout.

Berryman: There's an old adage that you can sing something more than you can say it… With an album that is purely speech, there are things that just can't happen, or things that need to happen, in order for clarity to be had by an audience. And so the way in which we are deconstructing some of these toasts, like maybe after a couplet pausing, just for an audience to catch up to what the fuck I just said. Because it's poetry, because there's slang in it, because there's a reference.

The specificity and variation that went into the clarification of each story was astonishing. From something as literal as character voices to more abstract, directional gestures to specify who was speaking. What was truly astonishing was how Berryman guided the audience into this fantastical world of toasts, almost teaching us how to hear them and how to keep up, so that by the end, it was almost as if we no longer needed the help, and he could just toast away, and we were on that corner or in that barbershop witnessing the truth of this nearly lost, almost secret oral tradition. This attention to detail, and care of every character is evident throughout the entire performance. It is expertly interwoven with Eric’s own anecdotes, about his childhood school, his name, and his own reflections. He notes about one of the toasts, in which a character is continually disrespected and that character responds in an extreme way, that while he wouldn’t do exactly what the character does in the story, it does teach him that he does not have to take disrespect lying down. This to me is the epitome of the Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me– what more can we learn, and what can we see beyond face value and our own initial assumptions?

Impressively, they were able to accomplish this without changing any of the source text.

Jharis Yokley and Eric Berryman in Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me. Photo Credit: Marika Kent

Sluyter: You're (Berryman) channeling translation. If you listen to what Eric's listening to in his ear, he's saying the same words at the same time, but it sounds so different. It's so much fun to be able to play that way, and see what we're really making. It feels like we're still engaged in that folklore tradition of doing our own version.

Berryman: Very much so… As Bruce (Jackson)  said… we’ve brought this material right into the present.  It doesn't seem like we're presenting a museum piece. And yet with that present vibe, we have changed none of the actual toast language, which was a mission of mine, to not change anything that could be made to seem problematic or troublesome.

Sluyter: We're not like washing it and cleaning it up.

Berryman: No, no, because that actually would do a disservice to this form. It also wouldn't allow you as an audience to make a decision about it. For you to make your decision to say, “actually, yeah, we should actually bring this back,” or “at least this should be studied in English classes or programs” or “actually, it's good that it died out.” You should have the right to be able to make a decision about that, but we don't allow you to do that if we change the words of the toast and try to censor ourselves and for the 21st century in any way.

I’m grateful that Eric Berryman and The Wooster Group brought this material to life because I learned something new. I’m especially grateful as a young Black American to have been introduced to this piece of my own history that I’d never known. I’ll be the first to admit that while the literal language of the toasts isn’t entirely in line with my sense of humor, they are incredible works of lingual finesse and there are lessons to be drawn from them. As Berryman says in Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me, toasts are aptly named– a toast to, or celebration of, people who accomplish incredible feats. There is always something to be learned from that.

Sluyter: Rather than a presentation of the material in some way, it's like an invitation into it… And stick around and have a drink at the bar and talk to people!

Berryman: Yes, the show’s only an hour long!

I find that most people, after seeing a piece of art, ask or are asked, “did you like it?” “Like” is too measly a word for how I felt about this piece (though, for the record, I absolutely “liked” it). I’m honestly not entirely sure if whether you liked it or not adds much to the conversation it provokes. It makes you laugh and think and question. It guides you to better understand a material which may easily attract judgment and engage with it in a way that is contextualized and inviting. I’m also not entirely sure if any of what I’ve written does Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me any kind of justice, or offers a whole representation. I think that it’s something someone has to experience for themselves. I also think that for myself, it introduced me to a world within my own culture which a week ago I never even knew existed, and that is more than I could ever ask for. Not to mention, incredible performances and work by all parties involved. It’s been a minute since I’ve seen a piece of theater this thoughtful, original, engaging, and illuminating. I genuinely hope that you see it for yourself, learn something new, draw your own conclusions, and continue the conversation. And as Eric Sluyter mentioned, there is a cash bar available, and much conversation to be had.

Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me is playing now through February 3 at The Performing Garage in New York City.

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