The New Zealand Herald has a profile of Caryl Phillips, whose intriguing new novel, Dancing in the Dark, is a fictionalized account of the life of Bert Williams, a West Indian actor who made a fortune performing in blackface in the early 1900s.
The Faustian nature of this bargain intrigued Phillips, who has written about race and identity his entire career. “The more I read about him, the more I thought to myself: what on earth was he thinking?” Phillips takes a sip of lemonade and cringes. “I mean, what on earth would make somebody go against the grain � and continue to perform and embrace the mockery of this image?”
Some of the answers can be found in Dancing in the Dark, which turns Williams’ life into a three-act of novelettes. The first section describes Williams’ journey to the stage. The second introduces his rise to fame, his weakness for drink, his sexless marriage, and the problems that developed with his African-American co-star, George Walker. In the final section, Williams has a short, lonely ride at the top, a stranger to everyone, including himself.
On a related, but non-fictional front, I recently received an advance review copy of Mel Watkins’s Stepin Fetchit, a biography of Lincoln Perry, the actor who made a name for himself in the 1920s and 30s by playing Uncle Toms and other figures of comic relief for white America. I haven’t gotten to it yet (still buried under a pile of assignments) but hope to read the new Caryl Phillips novel at the very least.