Near the turn of the past century, one of the top entertainers in the country was a black man who made a living playing a black man. Bert Williams, a talented singer, dancer and comedian, made his money by doing what he loathed, dressing like a fool and making people laugh at him.
Now, author Caryl Phillips, through a surrealistic blend of history, commentary and reflection, brings to life one of the most tragic figures of the American popular stage in “Dancing in the Dark,” (Knopf, $23.95)
Comedians have always had a dark, almost pathological side. The stories about Danny Thomas would curl one’s hair, Don Rickles is even nastier after the curtains go down, and Lenny Bruce made a career out of sharing his angst and self-destructive bent with audiences.
But Williams’ pain was of a different sort; like black people before and since, he seethed at the very narrow avenues down which his extraordinary talent was allowed to meander. It’s no surprise that one of the most telling comments about him came from another troubled comedian, W.C. Fields, who once said Williams was “the funniest man I ever saw—and the saddest man I ever knew.”
Phillips, a native of St. Kitts, grew up in England, but he writes with the aesthetic distance bred in him by his childhood on an island to which tourists flock. By that I mean the islanders learn to wear one face for the happy visitors from the colossus of the north or fair Albion, and a much different visage for one another.
Each night Williams would slather on the black make-up, a process called “blacking up,” and prance about the stage, using the comic devices of Zip Coon or Jim crow, two standard bits of buffoonery which defined many people’s impressions of black Americans. Just think of Chris Rock on a bad day or the once-popular Jimmy Walker of the television show “Good Times,” and you’ll get the picture.
At the time, black culture, or at least the version at which Americans laughed, was big business. Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, all of the great entertainers learned to black up for popularity and profits, and one can even find movie stills of a young Mickey Rooney.
Oddly enough, the only comparable period is that in which we live now, a time in which an adulterated, hip-hopped version black music, clothing, syntax is spawning a new lingua franca of all classes. Phrases such as “24-7” or “”I’m loving it” pop up in commercials for mainstream products and services.
But imagine, for a moment, how Williams’ ten pounds of talent failed to fit into the five-pound bag of opportunity. Eventually, through sheer talent he burst the bonds restricting him and became the first black man to produce, direct and star in motion pictures for what was then one of the leading film studios.
Phillips opens his book through Williams’ eyes, as the Antigua-born entertainer strolls through the streets of early 20th century Harlem. During the slow promenade, Williams’ refinement and sense of decorum is amply displayed through the inner narrative.
Suddenly a racial epithet is hurled—remember, this was when Harlem was in the process of becoming a center of black life. From that point on, the novel describes how Williams struggled against society and himself to make his mark.
Phillips addresses the irony of how blacks from the West Indies faced double discrimination. American blacks dogged them, making fun of their accents and their culture. Beyond the ridicule was the fear that the new black immigrants would steal jobs and status from black Americans. White Americans saw the newcomers from the Caribbean as just moreuntermenschen.
It’s important to understand, however, that “Dancing” is not a book solely about race. Instead, Phillips uses the metaphor of race to give us an ideal of what life on the stage and in the community was like a century ago. Remember that this was the first era of electrical entertainment—where for the first time a performer did not have to be in the same room as the people he regaled. Now, through the media of radio and the movies, entertainment could be packaged and sold.
Phillips tells this story well, through the eyes of a clown who could make everyone but himself laugh out loud at humanity’s foolishness.
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