William Brett

Trapped in a shaming role

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Dancing in the Dark

Caryl Phillips

Secker, pp. 214, £

Racial shame looms large in this ‘imaginative reconstruction’ of the life of Bert Williams, the black American entertainer. Williams only began to achieve notable success after deciding, in 1895, to smear his face with burnt cork and widen his lips with make-up, in order to ‘play the coon’. He would shuffle his feet and boggle his eyes, thereby providing white audiences with a stereotype they could easily recognise.

Performers can experience complex and ambiguous emotions when presenting characters for the benefit of audiences, and the adoption of ‘blackface’ by black performers is perhaps the most potent example of this phenomenon. It is for this reason that Caryl Phillips is entitled to turn Williams’ story into a novel. A historical account would be unable to explore the conflicting nuances of intense shame and deceptive pride that must have plagued ‘the most famous coloured man in America’.

Phillips is perfectly qualified to tell this story; his novels have all dealt with issues of race and identity, and especially with the far-reaching legacy of the Caribbean. Williams was born in the Bahamas and emigrated with his father to the US, attracted by the promise of an emerging black middle class. But the fact that his success as one of ‘The Two Real Coons’ in the New York vaudeville scene comes only after he blackens his face makes it immediately apparent that racial equality in the US was a myth.

W. C. Fields described Williams as ‘the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew’. He was a supremely talented performer, blessed with impeccable timing and comical physicality, and was adored by his audiences as a result. But he was riddled with shame, mindful of his proud West Indian roots and unable to look up at his black audience segregated in ‘nigger heaven’.

‘This was somebody else’s fantasy, and unless he could make this nobody into somebody, then he knew that eventually his eardrums would burst with the pain of the audience’s laughter’.

But Phillips is sensitive enough to go further, and to use the tensions of undermined racial identity to explore more general themes. The pain that Bert feels every time the audience laughs at his clownish antics is a metaphor not only for the confusion of an actor loved for the part that he plays, but also for anyone necessarily trapped by their own identity. Bert is not only thwarted by racism, but also by his inability to shake off the mantle of shame that his degrading performance has placed on his shoulders. He drinks heavily and cannot communicate with his wife, and Phillips makes it clear, by comparing him with his more exuberant partner George Walker, that the causes of his problems are internal as well as external.

The narrative structure is sometimes confusing. Phillips uses four voices (Bert, his partner George Walker and their wives) as well as his own, and throws in genuine historical sources to boot. This leaves the reader occasionally at a loss as to what is real, what is ‘imaginatively reconstructed’ and who exactly is talking.

But Phillips’ strengths lie in careful characterisation, instinctive powers of description and above all a comprehensive understanding of racial identity. Dancing in the Dark displays these qualities admirably.