NEW YORK — Delicately, the actor removes the record from its sleeve and places it on the turntable. As it starts to spin, he applies with tender loving care a velvet brush to the vinyl, cleaning it of dust. Then the needle is engaged, and, along with the familiar sounds of all those little scratches on the disc, come the poignant and plaintive notes generated by the long-suffering African American voices of a brutal recent past.
This is, essentially, all the theatricality required for the galvanizing, hypnotizing impact of “The B-Side: ‘Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons,’ ” a ravishing new show by the Wooster Group, a theater collective known for its adventurously cerebral aesthetic. Here, taking inspiration from the show’s originator, actor Eric Berryman — a company member of Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre — Wooster founding member Kate Valk stages “The B-Side” as a richly resonant auditory experience. That impression is amplified by Berryman, Philip Moore and Jasper McGruder, who appear before us in SoHo’s Performing Garage, harmonizing with the recording in masterly fashion.
Modeled after a 2014 Wooster Group production, “Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation,” the hour-long “B-Side” consists of Berryman playing all 14 tracks of an album recorded in 1964 at Texas Department of Corrections penal farms by Bruce Jackson, a folklorist and now the James Agee professor of American culture at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The experience is history in melody, an a cappella song cycle that reveals how men sentenced to hard labor endured, forging bonds through music.
As Berryman explains, referring to the liner notes and a historical text, the songs the inmates chose conformed to various jobs and occasions. There were logging songs (“Move Along ‘Gator,” performed on the album by Joseph Johnson) and songs for weeding fields (“Rattler,” sung by Jesse “G.I. Jazz” Hendricks); gospel elegies for tragic events (“Assassination of the President,” sung by Johnnie H. Robinson) and traditional spirituals (“See How They Done, My Lord,” sung by Houston Page). Sometimes, you can imagine the unison cutting and hoeing and hammering as you listen to the rhythms of the music: At evening’s end, a brief film clip visually confirms what the songs conjure. And in the spoken-word sequences on the album that the prisoners called “toasts,” you get a more intimate feel for the innate talent for storytelling some of the men were able to hone.
In some instances, songs such as “Three Moore Brothers” hint at the petty crimes for which some of these men did hard time. But as “The B-Side” so trenchantly evokes, singing the blues manages to waylay hardship for a spell. With its spartan dimensions, the production is one that looks as if it could easily travel. It’s the kind of event that a Washington theater company — Mosaic Theater, maybe? — could certainly be host to. Let’s hope that might happen, because this is an hour of listening for any audience anywhere that wants its spirits lifted even as its conscience is stirred.
The B-Side: Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons, by the Wooster Group. Directed by Kate Valk. Set, Elizabeth LeCompte; lighting, Ryan Seelig; sound, Eric Sluyter; video, Robert Wuss; costumes, Enver Chakartash; musical direction, Gareth Hobbs. About an hour. $25-$40. Through Nov. 19 at the Performing Garage, 33 Wooster St., New York. Visit thewoostergroup.org or call 212-966-3651.