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Jackson’s work in Texas prisons inspires NYC theater group

Bruce Jackson records prisoners from the O.B. Ellis Unit, a Texas state prison, as they sing work songs in 1964. Photo: Courtesy of Bruce Jackson  

By CHARLES ANZALONE

Published February 1, 2017

“The songs helped people survive.”
Bruce Jackson, SUNY Distinguished Professor
Department of English

As a young man more than 50 years ago, UB English professor Bruce Jackson first heard the work songs sung by the African-American convicts in Texas state prisons. He recognized an empowering spirit that resonated expressive power he couldn’t forget.

“I knew that, in the work songs, I was hearing a group musical tradition that came here from West Africa,” Jackson says. He visited the prisons repeatedly over a three-year period to document the songs. That work resulted in a book, four recordings — one of which received a Grammy nomination — and a documentary film. Other work he did during that time contributed to at least a dozen other books.

“Slaves on Southern plantations used the songs for the same reasons as convicts in Southern prison farms,” says Jackson, SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture. “The songs helped people survive.

“Many of the prison farms I visited were built on the sites of former plantations. The land was full of ghosts.”

The spirits of those ghosts are thriving today in such faraway and unlikely settings as lower Manhattan, and they will likely do so in the equally foreign environment of UB.

The Wooster Group, a prominent off-Broadway New York theater company, is now engaged in a production based on those songs Jackson recorded in the mid-60s: “The B-Side: ‘Negro Folklore from Texas Prisons’ A Record Album Interpretation.”

Last November, Jackson and his wife, Diane Christian, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of English, attended six rehearsals and eight performances of the Wooster Group’s work-in-progress at the Performing Garage in Soho. Many were standing-room-only, Jackson says, with the final performances receiving standing ovations. When “B-Side” lead actor Eric Berryman introduced Jackson, who was in the audience, as the inspiration and source for the show, he got a standing ovation as well.

“The B-Side” draws on the Wooster Group’s successful production “Early Shaker Spirituals,” a similar theatrical “record-album” adaptation of the 1976 LP of the same name that used songs as source material for the original production.

“The B-Side” follows Berryman’s journey with the work songs, blues, spirituals, preachings and toasts performed in the 1960s by the men of the Texas segregated agricultural prison farms, and includes meetings with Jackson.

Director Kate Valk and lead actor Eric Berryman during a rehearsal in November for "The B-Side." Photo: Courtesy of Bruce Jackson

In the performance, Berryman — using an in-ear receiver — channels the album, transmitting voices from the past into an electrically charged theatrical space. He follows each track of the album with a bit of the original recording, then brings it into the present.

Kate Valk, director of the production (a recent New Yorker article described her as “the Meryl Streep of lower Manhattan), visited UB on Jan. 27 to scope out the Katharine Cornell Theatre in the Ellicott Complex and the Black Box Theatre in the Center for the Arts. Jackson says Valk thought the Black Box Theatre would be perfect for a Buffalo production of “The B-Side.”

Valk and Jackson also met with administrators from the Department of Theatre and Dance to determine how much a UB production might cost. The budget will be put together with one important qualifier.

“I want this show to be free,” Jackson says.

The production is currently set for an Asian tour this year, then a monthlong performance in New York. Work is underway to bring it to Buffalo in spring 2018.

For Jackson, ‘The B-Side” takes him back to those unstructured days when he was up-close-and-personal to a shocking and pivotal event in the history of American racial relations.

“I went to the Texas prisons in late June 1964,” he says. “As I drove across east Texas and into southern Louisiana, I listened to reports on the car radio about three civil rights workers in Mississippi who had gone missing on June 21: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner. When I left Texas and drove across Louisiana and Mississippi, the search was still going on.

“The day I got to Atlanta, then the most liberal city in the South, a black National Guard colonel was murdered by the Klan,” he recalls. “The bodies of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner would be found on Aug.  4. They had been tortured, then shot to death by the KKK and Neshoba County Police.

“Their crime?” Jackson asks. “They were helping black people register to vote. The songs, the stories and the poems I’d heard on the prison farms where I worked reflected that world.”

Those murders were a key factor in passing the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Jackson says. A crucial part of the Voting Rights Act was eliminated in the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder.

“And once again in this presidential election,” Jackson says, “minorities in many parts of the country had to struggle to register to vote and then struggle a second time to cast a ballot.”

And decades later, the songs Jackson recorded have taken on more meaning as time has passed.

“The world that created the music and poetry I heard in Texas prisons in the 1960s hasn’t left us. So the material on that disc has currency,” Jackson says. “The material is wonderful in its own right, but it has meaning that resonates far beyond the recordings.

“The Wooster Group production is not only bringing it all into the present, but showing us how it has meaning in the present,” he says. “That’s what art is about.”