Eric Berryman Channels the Folklore of His Ancestors

Eric Berryman Channels the Folklore of His Ancestors

Two of Eric Berryman’s favorite things are drinking tea and telling stories, both of which were on the agenda on a recent rainy afternoon in the Manhattan neighborhood of SoHo.

“This first infusion I’m going to do is just to awaken the leaves and open things up,” he said, beginning with the tea. “You could drink it, but it wouldn’t be very flavorful.”

Serving an audience of one, in a ramshackle office space and storage room above the Performing Garage theater, Berryman poured hot water from a portable kettle over a pile of loose, Chinese black tea leaves in a small vessel. The water turned a deep amber as the leaves softened and unfurled. After a moment, he poured the liquid away, refilled the vessel and served the tea in two gleaming white cups.

On the stage below, a small crew of sound and lighting technicians was preparing for a rehearsal of “Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me,” a new Off Broadway show starring and cocreated by Berryman, in collaboration with the Wooster Group. Between sips, he told the story of how the show came to be, making frequent, spirited digressions into a variety of subjects, including the cause of the Opium Wars, his memorable appearance on “Atlanta” (he played a fictional Black Disney executive responsible for “A Goofy Movie”), and whether it’s OK to splurge on $35 maple syrup.

“You’ve got to live the life that you want to have in the future,” he said.

“Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me,” based on a 1970s album of Black American folk poetry of the same name, is a love letter to the joys and provocations of oral storytelling. It is built around a series of “toasts,” rhyming narrative poems that were traditionally recited at Black social gatherings and helped form the basis of hip-hop before falling out of fashion in the late 20th century.

The show, which began previews on Thursday, is a sibling of sorts to “The B-Side: ‘Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons,’” an earlier Wooster Group production — also starring and conceived by Berryman — that was adapted from an album of traditional African-American work songs. Like that show, “Swim Like Me” is an act of double translation, with Berryman willing his source material not only from an aural medium into a visual one, but across distinct cultural and historical contexts.

“It’s a wonderful meeting of his youthful energy and enthusiasm with this folkloric material,” said Kate Valk, a founding member of the Wooster Group and the director of both shows. “He is a traditionalist and likes the act of channeling — the tracks are coming through him.”

Berryman, 35, was raised in Baltimore by his mother and drawn to performing at an early age. He grew up in an arts-loving family (his mother’s uncle, the saxophonist Gary Bartz, has been named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts) and studied acting at the Baltimore School for the Arts and Carnegie Mellon University.

His exploration of African-American folk traditions began in 2013, when a summer program with the experimental theater group SITI Company led to his work on “Steel Hammer,” an operatic retelling of the John Henry myth that Berryman starred in and helped develop.

It was while working on that show, and immersing himself in field recordings of John Henry ballads, that he discovered Bruce Jackson’s compilation album “Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons.” Not long after, Berryman saw a performance of the Wooster Group’s “Early Shaker Spirituals,” featuring Frances McDormand and directed by Valk.

As with other Wooster shows, “Early Shaker Spirituals” transformed archival source material into a multisensory production, using an array of interpretive practices — including vocal mimicry, re-enactment, dance choreography and sound design — to create a kind of symphony of echoes.

“They were paying homage to these ordinary people who made valuable, incredible art,” Berryman said. “I had this lightbulb moment where I thought, ‘I would love to be able to do that with some work of my people.’”

During a rehearsal for “Swim Like Me,” less than a week before previews, Valk asked Berryman to slow down the cadence of a monologue about the ordinariness of his name. He had gotten ahead of a track recording, in which he recounts feeling insecure as an Eric growing up among Halimahs and Kaseems.

The show is set at an imaginary radio station, where a late-night host named Eric Berryman recites toasts and tells stories with the accompaniment of the drummer Jharis Yokley. Most of its one-hour run time is devoted to the toasts, whose lewd and heroic narrators include Shine, the sole Black survivor of the Titanic; Signifying Monkey, the trickster of the jungle; and Stagger Lee, an outlaw with an eager trigger finger.

But interspersed among the archival recordings are tapes of Berryman telling his own story, captured by Valk as the two were developing the script. Onstage, in character as Eric Berryman, the real Berryman performs this material, too. In keeping with the Wooster way, he is both revealing and refracting, straddling the boundary between reality and its representation.

It’s fitting that, after a decade of channeling the work of his forebears, Berryman would be asked to turn the technique on himself.

“How was that?” he asked Valk after running through the monologue a second time.

“Better,” she said. “A few more times and you’ll have it.”

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