A provocative, illuminating novel that imagines the inner life and explores the cultural legacy of Bert Williams, the first popular black stage performer of America’s early 20th century.
Born in the West Indies, Williams delighted white audiences and embarrassed his family and associates by playing the bumbling, slow-witted “coon” or “nigger,” corking his visage in blackface. He considered this stereotype a peculiarly American phenomenon, unknown in his homeland. Was he the artistic creator of his role, or was he the prisoner of it? Williams claimed that the caricature should not offend since it had no basis in reality, but it plainly reinforced a popular prejudice, one that put strict limitations on acceptable roles for a performer of his color. West India–born novelist and cultural critic Phillips (A Distant Shore, 2003, etc.) employs Williams to explore themes of racial identity and the twisted relationship between black artists and white audiences. Though generally avoiding polemic, the novel’s implications extend from the minstrelsy of a hundred years ago to the marketing of today’s hip-hop and gangsta rap. While interspersing snippets from stage productions and newspaper accounts, the novelist takes considerable creative license in fictionalizing the reflections of the comic entertainer, a man of sad dignity and ambiguous sexuality who keeps the various parts of his life compartmentalized. Structured into three acts, the novel traces the rise and fall of the team of Williams and the more assertively political George Walker, whose partnership formed the first all-black company to achieve success on Broadway, a triumph both enhanced and undermined by Bert’s ability to play the fool. In rescuing Williams’s reputation from obscurity, Phillips gives his leading man a tragic dimension. As times were changing—from Harlem’s transformation into a nightlife mecca to the heavyweight championship of Jack Johnson to the assertive activism of W.E.B. Dubois—Williams couldn’t change with them.
The author’s depiction of the culture’s racial dynamic will surely cause a stir.