A conflicted man, covered in the paint of a racial stereotype

September 18, 2005|By Laura Demanski | Laura Demanski,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NOVEL

Dancing in the Dark

By Caryl Phillips. Alfred A. Knopf. 224 pages.

One of the most famous entertainers to don blackface on the American stage was a black man. He was Bert Williams, a native West Indian who emigrated to the U.S. with his parents as a boy and became half of the vaudeville team Williams and Walker, the first black performers to make it to Broadway. In Dancing in the Dark, Caryl Phillips ventures to imagine the unknown inner life of this enigmatic historical figure. What his keen novelist's eye discerns behind the multiple masks Williams wore is quietly harrowing.

Phillips, named one of Granta magazine's Best Young British Novelists in 1993 and author of the acclaimed Cambridge and A Distant Shore, is an established practitioner of loosely historical novels that plumb the consciousness of fictional men and women entangled in actual history -notably, the grim history of the Atlantic slave trade. In Dancing in the Dark, his characters are based on real people, but Phillips is no more timid than usual in furnishing them with complex and detailed feelings, personalities, and memories - all of the stuff that makes up a human existence.

The existence of Phillips' Bert Williams is a trial. We sense this, even before we know of the compromises that make it so difficult. From the outset, the prose has a somber, almost funereal timbre - the antithesis of the low comedy that characterizes Bert's "foolish blackface antics" on stage. A bracing tonal chiaroscuro results from this juxtaposition of the "clownish roughness and loud vulgarity" that he projects and the profound gravity he contains. Bert cultivates this distance between outside and inside, as though a private existence of monkish reserve could cancel out the exaggerated exuberance of his stage persona.

Williams and Walker find their fame with an act called "Two Real Coons," in which George Walker plays the slick wise guy to Bert Williams' straight man, a caricature borrowed from a racist mythos: a "shuffling, dull-witted, clumsy, watermelon-eating Negro of questionable intelligence." Bert's success with the character only heightens the inner struggle he has to fight every time he makes up his face: "As he looked at himself in the mirror he knew that he had disappeared, and he understood that every night he would have to rediscover himself before he left the theater. ... This was not any Negro known to any man. This was not a Negro." More and more, Bert behaves like a man haunted by guilt and his own alter ego.

The power of Dancing in the Dark builds slowly and almost imperceptibly as Bert shuttles from mirror to stage to mirror again, rubbing away a little more of himself each time he removes his makeup. Together, the book's somberness and its intricate introspection make for a sometimes glacial pace. But the reader's patience is ultimately rewarded. All of the tensions and contradictions engendered by Bert's situation are released in the crises at the end of the novel, and with them comes a world of feeling that has been dammed up until ready to burst.

On one hand, Bert's black audience (and his partner) grows increasingly disapproving of his trademark character. In expressing their unease, they merely echo the reservations that he has silently harbored from the first time burnt cork touched his skin. But in an astonishingly moving scene, Bert, having been confronted with objections that he shares, finds himself defending the character he plays - "he shuffles a little, and he may be slow-witted, but we surely recognize this poor man. The essence of my performance is that we know and sympathize with this unfortunate creature."

On the other hand, the white audience whose approval underwrites his livelihood will tolerate no divergence from the caricature they adore. Emboldened by the examples of the proud black professionals and activists around him in Harlem, Bert seizes an opportunity to perform on film without his makeup. The cold reception with which this is met leaves him a lost man for whom all the pathos of the ordinary has-been is multiplied by the baleful effects of racism, politics, and self-loathing.

Before these defining crises, Dancing in the Dark seems to be a serious and accomplished novel that gives new life to a fascinating historical figure. It doesn't immediately feel groundbreaking. But Phillips, a writer of great skill and even greater patience, is quietly building an important book. He takes his time developing the tensions in Bert Williams's distinctive experience of Jim-Crow-era America. It isn't until they finally do erupt that the novel comes into focus as a singularly shattering work of art.

Laura Demanski is a writer living in Chicago. She keeps a blog about books and the arts at www.artsjournal.com/aboutlastnight.

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