I’ve heard of The Wooster Group but I did not watch much theater as a NYC native growing up. Instead, I came up on television comedy shows, and museums and zoos here and there. In 2020, I watched a Wooster Group performance for the first time—Rumstick Road, a landmark work and the second part of a trilogy. The fuzzy video recording was assigned for class. I was taken aback by the vulnerability, expressionism, and virtuosity. Like much of The Wooster Group’s work, Rumstick Road is a show that is deeply personal in its experimentation. It’s a response to the suicide of Spaulding Gray’s mother and (re)creates a new story through personal recordings, gestures, and slides. Composed by Gray and Elizabeth LeCompte, two key founding members of the company, the show established The Wooster Group as a flagship of experimental theater. Founded in 1975, they have nurtured the careers of many beloved actors and artists we love today. But what’s most special about The Wooster Group is that LeCompte still directs the ensemble. But unlike shows in the past, associate director Kate Valk cleverly takes the helm of a new project with a familiar collaborator.
Enter Eric Berryman. It’s a kismet match. The collaboration between Berryman and The Wooster Group first sparked when he saw their 2014 record album interpretation performance EARLY SHAKER SPIRITUALS, named and interpreted after the 1976 LP with the same title. For Berryman, it felt natural to present The Wooster Group with the 1966 LP “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons.” Fast forward to 2016, and The Wooster Group presented a new record album interpretation, THE B-SIDE: “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons” which features work songs, spirituals, and blues from inmates in Texas’ then-segregated prisons. Valk directed the piece with deserving acclaim. At first glance, the pairing with Berryman and The Wooster Group may seem strange but it makes complete sense. No one remixes the archives better than The Wooster Group, and Berryman has a wonderful eye for history’s forgotten treasures. It’s a real sense of sankofa: looking back on the past to make progress towards the present.
What a delight for Berryman and The Wooster Group to return with the production, Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me, which naturally follows the tradition of being titled after an LP album with the same name edited by folklorist Bruce Jackson. (Advanced copies of Jackson’s book version are for sale. Yes, I did purchase it. Thank you for asking.)
The show is a cozy evening filled with dramatic (re)tellings of various toasts, a form of storytelling Berryman explains early on in the show. For just a little less than an hour, he captivates audiences with an envious vocal range, bringing to life characters we can’t help but want to hear more from despite their vulgarity. It’s a bit of an ironic set up—Berryman is “on air,” launching toast after toast with crude language and lewd personas. “Can we say $%@! on the radio?!?!” Well as it turns out when you have the immensely talented Jharis Yokely on drums, you can!
The production is so sophisticated it subverts much of the crassness one might obviously squirm at. From Eric Sluyter’s wonderful sound design to Irfan Brkovic’s playful video production, the show lures you off your high horse and asks you to laugh. It asks you to hear the stories for the times they were written in and not necessarily the times they’re being heard in. Marika Kent’s lighting is sexy enough to remind one that we’re all adult enough to laugh at [redacted]. How else did we all get here anyway?
There is a classier “way” we got here, though—these toasts are rooted in an African American oral tradition. Though some offer that toasts serve as the key elements of contemporary rap/hip hop, I offer something different. Toasts are the early roots of stand-up comedy. From Richard Pryor to Redd Foxx to Moms Mabley, they are the seeds of the chitlin’ circuit and Black vaudeville. These seeds became the foundation for American theater. To be clear, the American theater would not exist without Blackface minstrelsy. African American performers (and their counterparts) began touring their acts of music, song, dance, and storytelling all across the country and even through Europe. This gave birth to the first kind of national theater and entertainment system for the United States. It was entertainment at its finest for many American households. As technology progressed, entertainment sustained through comedy bits recorded on vinyl. In its peak, these records would spin in households across America in the ‘60s and ‘70s, playing in living rooms while children were fast asleep and liquor was quick to flow. (They have a cash bar of Uncle Nearest 1884 Small Batch Whiskey available.)
Like The Wooster Group’s early founding, experimentation still begets attention to detail. Berryman and Valk and The Wooster Group have done it again. Even if the history evades you, I leave you with one thing: the show is fucking funny. Get your ass in the theater and laugh like me.
Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me is playing now through February 3 at The Performing Garage in New York City.