Arts

An Actor Channeling 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.

Berryman, right, and Jharis Yokley in the Off Broadway show “Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me.”Credit…Marika Kent

“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.

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