Caryl Phillips is an admired figure in literary circles but little-known in the spotlight of public opinion. This may soon change, given the subject he tackles...

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“Dancing in the Dark”
by Caryl Phillips
Knopf, 214 pp., $23.95

Caryl Phillips is an admired figure in literary circles but little-known in the spotlight of public opinion. This may soon change, given the subject he tackles in his latest novel.

In “Dancing in the Dark,” Phillips re-imagines the life of black vaudeville entertainer Bert Williams, peeking behind the curtain of the man who donned blackface to please white audiences. Dismaying his fellow blacks, Williams willingly became “a shuffling, dull-witted, clumsy, watermelon-eating Negro of questionable intelligence.”

In fictionalizing the story, Phillips uses dialogue from plays, song lyrics and newspaper reports to lend an air of authenticity. He’s also free with the kind of racial slurs that were as commonplace then as they are taboo now. These epithets reflect real attitudes and are not used just for show: As someone who has spent his career tackling issues of identity and race, Phillips, who is black, is not into cheap thrills.

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Williams, born in 1874, hit his stride around the turn of the century and, as the doleful half of a duo that played on Broadway, was one of the first black performers to make it big. A star of the Ziegfield Follies and head of his own musical-theater company, he ran in the same league as Charlie Chaplin. But, as Phillips tells it, his success came at a steep emotional price.

Coming up

Caryl Phillips


The author of “Dancing in the Dark” will read at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 19 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. Free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

After he linked up with a comedian named George Walker, Williams began playing the fool to Walker’s dandy. Smaller, darker and angrier, Walker was an avowed womanizer and an unrepentant grabber of the gold. Williams, a gentle giant of a man, became the conscience for both of them.

Just as his stage persona became a trap — W.C. Fields called Williams “the funniest man I’ve seen, and the saddest man I know” — his marriage reflected similar ambivalence. He was unable or unwilling to consummate the relationship and seemed more at home at the neighborhood bar in Harlem, where he always drank alone.

The picture of Williams that Phillips creates looks a lot like the one Ralph Ellison would paint decades after Williams’ early death in his classic novel “Invisible Man.”

“Can the colored American ever be free to entertain beyond the evidence of his dark skin?” Williams asks Walker, as the pair returns home to New York after a successful tour of England. “Can the colored man be himself in 20th-century America?”

“Dancing in the Dark” lacks the nuance of Phillips’ previous prize-winning novel, “A Distant Shore.” Still, it’s an artful rendition of an important and neglected figure.

Phillips dates his fascination with Bert Williams back a decade, to his completion of a long essay about Marvin Gaye and the stereotypes that bind black performers in America. Williams, too, could have been an essay topic. But given the gap not only in our knowledge but also between his time and ours, he seems better suited to the imaginative reach this novel provides.

Ellen Heltzel, a critic and writer from Portland, can be read on the Internet at www.goodhousekeeping.com/bookbabes and www.thebookstandard.com