The New York Times Book Review
Dancing in the Darkby Caryl Phillips
In this searing novel, Caryl Phillips reimagines the life of the first black entertainer in the U.S. to reach the highest levels of fame and fortune.After years of struggling for success on the stage, Bert Williams (1874—1922), the child of recent immigrants from the Bahamas, made the radical decision to don blackface makeup and play the “coon.”
In this searing novel, Caryl Phillips reimagines the life of the first black entertainer in the U.S. to reach the highest levels of fame and fortune.After years of struggling for success on the stage, Bert Williams (1874—1922), the child of recent immigrants from the Bahamas, made the radical decision to don blackface makeup and play the “coon.” Behind this mask he became a Broadway headliner–as influential a comedian as Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and W. C. Fields, who called him “the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew.” It is this dichotomy at Williams’ core that Phillips explores in this richly nuanced, brilliantly written novel, unblinking in its attention to the sinister compromises that make up an identity.
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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.
walker:-I tell you I'm letting you in on this because you're a friend of mine. I could do this alone and let no one in on it. But I want you to share it just because we're good friends. Now after you get into the bank, you fill the satchel with money.
walker:-That ain't the point. We don't know who put the money there, and we don't know why they got it. And they won't know how we got it. All you have to do is fill the satchel; I'll get the satchelyou won't have nothing to bother aboutthat's 'cause you're a friend of mine, see?
williams:-And what do I do with the satchel?
walker:-All you got to do is bring it to me at a place where I tell you.
williams:-When they come to count up the cash and find it short, then what?
walker:-By that time we'll be far, far awaywhere the birds are singing sweetly and the flowers are in bloom.
williams:-(With doleful reflection) And if they catch us they'll put us so far, far away we never hear no birds singin'. And everybody knows you can't smell no flowers through a stone wall.
He listens to the applause for his slow and cautious character. He listens to the applause for George's dapper, city-slick Negro dude. Do the audience understand that his character, this Shylock Homestead whose dull-witted antics amuse them, bears no relationship to the real Egbert Austin Williams? Every evening this question worries him, and every evening as he takes his curtain call he tries to ignore it, but he often lies in his bed late into the night trying to calculate where he might force a little more laughter here, or squeeze an inch more room to work with there, and therefore impress them with the overwhelming evidence of his artistry. Every evening he listens to the rainstorm of their applause and every evening he takes his bow, careful to make sure that he bends from the waist in tight unison with George, careful to make sure that the pair of them move and offer their best smile as one. George talks without moving his lips or turning his head. "You want to give them more?" Bert looks straight ahead. "Not tonight." Again they bow as one. "Everything okay?" "Sure, everything is just capital." The band begins to play their number and Bert waves a slow-branched hand to the audience and turns to leave. He holds the curtain open for George and makes sure that his partner passes safely through the velvet drapes. The thunderous applause continues, but Bert does not turn again to look at the audience for, at this moment, he wants something from them that he suspects he can never have: their respect. However, from the very beginning, this reluctant seven-legged word has failed to make an appointment with him.
He listens to the stage manager hollering out his name in the busy corridor. Why can't the impatient man wait until he has taken off his face?
Mr. Williams, you'll be wanting me to keep a seat at tomorrow night's performance for your pop?
Every night the same intrusive question, and every night the same polite answer.
Sure, Mr. Kelly, you keep that seat nice and warm. I reckon he'll be coming back either tomorrow night or some night soon.
He places the newly soiled towel by the bowl of murky water and he stares into the mirror at his fresh, clean face. He knows that his father has no desire to return and witness his son transforming himself into a nigger fool. He knows his father well enough to understand that beneath his placid exterior a quiet frustration burns within him, and he believes that his father does not like to place himself in situations that might cause him to get heated up. Father and son have never spoken of this fact, but since their arrival in America father and son seem to have found it difficult to communicate on any subject.
Mr. Williams, will you be needing anything else tonight?
I don't believe so, Mr. Kelly.
Well, you just remember. I'll be holding that spot for your pop. Tomorrow night, or whenever he's ready to see you perform, you just let me know.
Thank you, Mr. Kelly. I surely appreciate it.
He averts his eyes from the mirror and listens to the sound of retreating footsteps in the corridor beyond his locked dressing room door. Although no words have been exchanged between them, it is clear that his bewildered father is deeply ashamed of his only son.
The balance has gone. Five years ago, when she first met him, young Mr. Williams was a man with a purpose. Handsome, well dressed, and still in his mid-twenties, he possessed courtesies that belonged to an earlier era. He rose early, and retired early, and drank and smoked only in moderation, and he possessed a fierce ambition and work ethic. And talent. Lord, he had a talent that others could see, but none, she believed, could imagine it in full bloom the way she could. This, she thought, was a man fit for a widow who had already mastered the art of nurturing a man's dreams. This new man had traveled a long way from his Caribbean birthplace and twice crossed America, first to the west and then back to the east. This was a man whose brow she might soothe, a man she could encourage to relax and stay focused as he journeyed toward his destiny. Truly, fate had blessed her, but five years later the balance has gone. On that momentous day she accompanied her friend Ada, and sat quietly in the corner of the photographer's studio. The tobacco advertisement was to feature Ada and another woman, all dressed up in their finery, sophisticated ladies ready to step out on the arms of two gentlemen. Quality colored ladies, quality product, and then the two dandies entered the studio, one tall and tan, one dark and short, and her eyes were drawn to the tall man, who bowed gently before Ada and the other woman and then turned to her and smiled with a sweetness that caused her body to tremble, so much so that Ada had to shoot her foolish friend an unambiguous glare. She lowered her eyes, for there was now no longer any need to look at this tall man for his image was burned deeply into her soul. She had immediately noticed that this lofty man, with long fingers to match his legs, possessed a strange spring in his step. She expected a less nimble gait from a man with his build, something that might betray the fact that he was overly conscious of his size, but there was a curious buoyancy to his movement. She looked up as the photographer set the first pose, and she observed that it was his arm that Ada's companion was instructed to take but the woman began to act uppity with him, and then plain downright cold, for she had noticed him looking across at Lottie, but it made no difference for he kept right on treating this difficult woman like a queen upon whom he was honored to attend. Lottie observed that the darker man also had manners, although he did not possess the same courtesies as his taller friend. She scrutinized the darker man and immediately sensed that beneath the sugar he would probably be quick to anger and express his mannishness, and should a woman attempt to slip a noose around his ankle he would soon be stepping clear. A heartbreaker, she thought, but if Ada wished to make reckless eyes at this man, then who was she to say anything? Her friend's new preoccupation left her free to secretly pursue her own interest, although, of course, she had no intention of letting this man know that her heart was already beating to his tune. And yet again the photographer moved this tall man and Ada's tiresome friend into another position that suggested both courtliness and intimacy, and the tall man turned his head so that his eyes once more met those of Lottie, who remained seated quietly in the corner. She reminded herself that whatever thoughts might be coursing through her mind she was a widow and she should not forget herself and allow her heart to fist up so rapidly for this young man.
Sitting across the table from him at a fine restaurant on Fifty-third Street, Lottie melts. But he does not blow any hot air on her. He just listens to what she has to say about her late husband's painful final days in Chicago, and he drinks up her words as though they were the finest red wine. She is helpless in the face of his stillness. He is balanced, and he seems to understand that the first duty of love is to listen. She looks closely at his hands, for she knows that gentle hands that are afraid of loss are the only hands for her. Lottie wishes to apologize for her somewhat coy behavior at the photographer's studio, but saying sorry seems unnecessary. She toys with her food while, inside of her, certainty falls like an anchor.
He insists on walking her the four blocks back to her rooming house on Forty-ninth Street, and as they step out of the restaurant he offers her his arm. They ignore the unsavory odors that emanate hereabouts from dark hallways and open windows, and they promenade regally as though crossing a meadow that is high with the scent of flowers on a bright spring morning. He tells her that there is no other girl; that there has never been another girl, that his life has been selfishly dedicated to performing, but now he is ready for something else. He confesses that her quiet dignity has captured his heart and he wonders if she might consider hitching her fortune to his. She smiles coyly and suddenly he feels overwhelmed with embarrassment.
Meet the Author
Caryl Phillips was born in St. Kitts, West Indies. Brought up in England, he has written for television, radio, theater, and film. He is the author of three books of nonfiction and seven previous novels. His last novel, A Distant Shore, won the 2004 Commonwealth Prize. His awards include the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, a Guggenheim fellowship, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Phillips lives in New York City.
Caryl Phillips’s The Final Passage, A State of Independence, The European Tribe, Higher Ground, Cambridge, Crossing the River, The Nature of Blood, The Atlantic Sound, A New World Order, and A Distant Shore are available in Vintage paperback.
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