Author Phillips follows rise and fall of an entertainer
New book is life of vaudevillian Bert Williams
About 10 years ago when he was reading, author Caryl Phillips came across a reference to a black performer named Bert Williams, who would don blackface and then play a bumbling, slow-witted racial stereotype to sold-out white audiences.
"Williams was a vaudeville performer," said Phillips in a recent phone interview, "and in the early 1900s, right around the turn of the century, he was the most famous black American entertainer."
Through the years Phillips began to collect a file of information on Williams, and finally decided a few years ago he would have to write a book about him because the character just wouldn’t go away.
Phillips’ eighth book "Dancing in the Dark" (224 pages, $23.95, Alfred A. Knopf Publishers) has just been released, and it not only tells the tale of Bert Williams, but it also portrays Williams’ performing partner George Walker and their long-suffering wives.
"This book was difficult to write," said Phillips, "because I had to capture both the personal and the performing side of Bert Williams. The only way I could do this was to expand the characters of Walker and their wives. I also found a great paradox in his life was that as he became more famous, I had less information about him. This is why I chose to glimpse him through the eyes of others."
On Wednesday, Phillips will conduct a public reading at 8 p.m. at the Recital Hall in the Performing Arts Center on the uptown SUNY at Albany campus. Earlier that day at 4:15 he will conduct an informal seminar in the Assembly Hall located in the university’s Campus Center. Both talks are being presented free by the New York State Writers Institute.
"Dancing in the Dark" is divided into three acts and follows the rise and tragic fall of Bert Williams, a man who at one time was the director of his own performing company and even mounted the first all-black Broadway show. Comic W.C. Fields called him "the funniest man I ever saw," but he was also brooding, melancholy, and trapped to forever play the bumbling "negro fool."
"When I first started researching Williams and writing the book, I was pretty angry with him," said Phillips. "How could he be corking his face for white audiences during this time when there was such great promise for black America? This was also the time of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, but as I discovered more about him, I could see that he was trapped to play this role. Toward the end, when I was writing this book, I began to feel great empathy for him."
Phillips also saw Bert Williams as someone in the long tradition of the clown. "So many of our beloved clowns, such as Lenny Bruce, even Benny Hill and Fatty Arbuckle, seem to be so extroverted but are actually lonely, isolated people who don’t want anyone to get too close."
Bert Williams also knew that audiences only wanted to see his act. They didn’t care that it was insulting to blacks and especially to Bert Williams himself.
"Much of this novel is about how difficult it is to escape our identity, what we’re known for," said Phillips. "Woody Allen had a hard time going from a comic to a serious filmmaker, and sports stars always seem to have a difficult transition into something else after their athletic careers."
Phillips, who was born in St. Kitts and brought up in England, moved to the United States at the age of 32. "As an immigrant, I can understand what Bert Williams’ frustration must have been," he said. "Most Americans come to this country to re-invent themselves, but Williams was never able to re-invent himself. He was trapped to keep playing this character over and over, and it destroyed him."
According to Phillips, this is a dilemma that many black entertainers have felt through the years, especially the ones who have wanted to become successful and well paid. "I look at today’s hip-hop artists and I wonder if they’re playing a role they want to play," said Phillips, "or are they playing a role they think white audiences want them to play?"
POTENTIAL FOR FILM
Phillips, who wrote the screenplay for the film "The Mystic Masseur," which came out in 2001 and was directed by Ismail Merchant, thinks a movie based on the life of Bert Williams would be very successful today. "This is a very American story," he said. "This is a country filled with many people like Bert Williams, people who pretend to be something they’re not."
Although he loves writing screenplays, Caryl Phillips has no intention of writing one based on this book. "When a book is finally published, I tend to move on to something new," he said.
"I hope someone becomes interested in the story because it would make a good film, but for a movie to happen, some wellknown producer or actor will have to step in and get the project rolling."
Caryl Phillips’ "Dancing in the Dark" recalls the performing days of Bert Williams, his partner George Walker and their longsuffering wives.