A searing new novel that reimagines the remarkable, tragic, little-known life of Bert Williams (1874--1922), the first black entertainer in the United States to reach the highest levels of fame and fortune.
Even as an eleven-year-old child living in Southern California in the late 1800s-his family had recently emigrated from the Bahamas-Bert Williams understood that he had to "learn the role that America had set aside for him." At the age of twenty-two, after years of struggling for success on the stage, he made the radical decision to do his own "impersonation of a negro": he donned blackface makeup and played the "coon" as a character. Behind this mask, he became a Broadway headliner, starring in the Ziegfeld Follies for eight years and leading his own musical theater company-as influential a comedian as Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and W. C. Fields.
Williams was a man of great intelligence, elegance, and dignity, but the barriers he broke down onstage continued to bear heavily on his personal life, and the contradictions between the man he was and the character he played were increasingly irreconcilable for him. W. C. Fields called him "the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew," and it is this dichotomy at Williams's core that Caryl Phillips illuminates in a richly nuanced, brilliantly written narrative.
The story of a single life, Dancing in the Dark is also a novel about the tragedies of race and identity, and the perils of self-invention, that have long plagued American culture. Powerfully emotional and moving, it is Caryl Phillips's most accomplished novel yet.
Picking up from the cultural criticism collected in A New World Order (2001), Phillips goes one step further, imagining himself into the life of Burt Williams (1874-1922), a vaudeville performer who became, in the turn-of-the-century years before Jack Johnson's championship, the most famous of black Americans. The result is not so much a novel as a loving biographical fiction, one in which Phillips, perhaps channeling Williams's natural (and often challenged) sense of dignity and propriety, shows the more humiliating aspects of his life in a kind of half light. Williams was the first black performer to don blackface and was a master, with partner George Walker, of the cakewalk. Phillips is amazing at rendering the wrenching contradictions of "playing the coon" as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois became prominent, and what those contradictions did to Williams's psyche--as well as to Walker's (who reacted very differently), and to those of their wives, Lottie Williams and Aida (nee Ada) Overton Walker. Williams's life--emigration from the Bahamas; hardscrabble youth marked by racism; hard climb to stardom; relatively heavy drinking and dissipation; early, childless death--emerges piecemeal. Beyond a few set pieces, Phillips shies away from a full-on dramatization of Williams and Walker's stage act. (He includes some verbatim dialogues, songs and contemporary reviews instead.) The whole is suffused in Phillips's brilliant, if here filigreed, light. (Sept. 18)
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
October 09, 2006
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.
Excerpt from Dancing in the Dark by Caryl Phillips
It is February 1903 and at present he is impersonating Shylock Homestead in the musical In Dahomey, but only after dark. He shambles about as though unsure what to do next, as if a wrong turning has placed him upon this stage and he may as well stay put until somebody offers him the opportunity to withdraw. Every evening Mr. Williams wanders aimlessly, but despite his size there is some elegance to his movement. When the audience raises its collective voice and asks him to reprise a song, Mr. Williams acts as though he is first shocked and then somewhat embarrassed that they should be stirring him out of his befuddled anonymity. Of course, this is all the more comical to his audience for they have never before witnessed a Negro performer affecting such indifference in the face of such overwhelming approval. Back uptown in Harlem, few residents have actually seen him perform, but everybody is fully aware of his stellar reputation. However, there are some Harlemites who have sat upstairs in the balcony and looked down at the senior partner in the Williams and Walker comedy duo, who are unsure what to make of his foolish blackface antics. These days Mr. Williams seldom looks up at the parcel of dark faces that stare down at him from nigger heaven, but he is always grateful to hear a good number of these colored Americans applauding enthusiastically as In Dahomey unfolds.
He stares at the contented white faces in the orchestra stalls knowing that he can hold an audience like nobody else in the city. He knows when to go gently with them, and he carefully observes their mood; he knows not to strain the color line for he respects their violence. At other times, when he can sense something close to warmth, he might push and cajole a little, and try to show them something that they had not thought of before; he might try to introduce them to the notion that music and wit are the colored man's gift to America, and then impress them with his own unique style of carefree dancing. All the while he listens closely for a single dull note, and should he detect it he will proceed with caution and neither irritate nor provoke. He is keen that at the end of the evening, they should all leave safely and without either party having broken the unwritten contract that exists between the Negro performer and his white audience. If they can achieve this, then it will be possible for them to come together again in good faith. He cares what they think about him, and he understands that one false step and he risks toppling over into the musician's pit and being replaced by Bob Cole or Ernest Hogan or one of the scores of other colored performers who are keen to usurp him without fully understanding that they do have the choice of offering these white faces in the orchestra stalls some artistic drollery and a little repose instead of clownish roughness and loud vulgarity.
But these days an increasingly impatient George does not share his partner's circumspect feelings with regard to their white audience. Before In Dahomey, neither Williams nor Walker objected to being presented as "The Two Real Coons" on the New York stage. They were young men, freshly arrived in the city and making their determined way in the world of vaudeville, often sharing the boards with acts billed as "The Merry Wops" or "The Sport and the Jew," and when money was in short supply they were happy to play on the same bill with trained dog and monkey acts. But it is now 1903, and times have changed and they are successful, and although Bert does not like to heat up the white man's blood by being flash in his face, George feels differently. George takes the role of the dude of the pair, the Broadway swell with silk cravat and fancy spats who blazes with energy, and who is not afraid to eyeball the audience. He is always pushing and demanding more, and the more George agitates, the more sorrowful his partner becomes both in performance and in person. He thinks, No need to be like that, George, as his gold-toothed partner grins and winks and seems determined to create a palpable flutter of feminine hearts both onstage and in the orchestra stalls, but Bert never says anything to dandy George in his colorful vests. Some days, Bert feels that their act, although seamless and coherent on the outside, is beginning to fracture internally for George has absolutely no interest in going gently with an audience and learning how to seduce them, and Lord help the man, white or colored, who would dare refer to him with an unpleasant epithet. In fact, an increasingly successful, and confident, George is beginning to act as though he doesn't give a damn about white folks.