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.
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The Music of Bert Williams
"Let It Alone"
This song was recorded in 1906, during what is referred to as Williams's "Early Period," from 1901-1909. "Let It Alone" is one of his best-known pieces. It is centered on a theme he frequently expounded upon: the dangers of not minding one's own business.
"Play That Barber-Shop Chord"
"Play that Barber-Shop Chord" is from Williams's "Middle Period" from 1910-1918. When George Walker became ill and eventually died, everyone wondered whether Bert could go it alone. He showed them all as a headliner in an otherwise all-white cast, delivering this, his most popular song from the 1910 edition of the Ziegfeld Follies.
These recordings are excerpted from a sampler CD produced in cooperation with Alfred A. Knopf and Archeophone Records. For more information on the music of Bert Williams and the acoustic era of recording, contact Richard Martin or Meagan Hennessey at Archeophone Records, 217.469.7331 or e-mail email@example.com. Archeophone Records is not affiliated with The Archeophone of France.