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Dancing in the Dark, by Caryl Phillips (Secker & Warburg, ISBN 0-436-20583-1)

Review by Nicholas Laughlin

First published in Caribbean Beat, March/April 2006

Born in the Caribbean (St. Kitts), bred in Britain (Leeds, Oxford, London), and resident in the United States for most of the past decade (New York, New Haven), Caryl Phillips is better placed than most to map the shifting, sometimes overlapping, but distinct concepts of blackness in those three corners of the Atlantic. His new novel, Dancing in the Dark, tells the story of the real-life Bert Williams, once “the highest-paid entertainer in America” (as the dust jacket helpfully informs us), a light-skinned black man who made his name and fortune by painting his face with burnt cork in order to play the “coon.” Born in the Bahamas in 1874, Bert migrates to the United States with his parents when he is eleven. The respectable, ambitious Williams family thinks the move will help them get ahead in the world. Instead: “in this new place they are simply Negroes.” “Bert begins to learn the role that America has set aside for him to play.”

That role, when his parents cannot afford to send him to university, turns out to be a part in a “medicine show,” a small troupe of song-and-dance performers touring roughneck lumber camps in northern California. When “Nigger Bert” can no longer stand the insults of his audiences and the insincerities of his white fellow performers, he takes off for Gold Rush-rich San Francisco, where on a street corner he meets a banjo-clutching young man named George Walker, and the soon-to-be-celebrated partnership of Walker and Williams is born. The duo takes off across America, playing in city after city. Then, in Detroit in 1896, Bert takes the step that catapults the “Two Real Coons” act into real fame. “As I apply the burnt cork to my face, as I smear the black into my already sable skin . . . I am leaving behind Egbert Austin Williams.”

The novel follows Walker and Williams to New York, where their “Negro musical comedy” In Dahomey is a roaring triumph, and thence on tour to Britain, where they play a command performance at Buckingham Palace. Now wealthy men, and running their own theatrical company, they both wed (though Bert’s marriage seems to be unconsummated), buy substantial houses in Harlem, and argue over how their success might best contribute to the progress of “the race.” George grows increasingly uncomfortable with his partner’s portrayal of the shambling Sambo; Bert holds fast to his belief that their audience somehow understands he is not the creature he plays on stage. Their second musical, Abyssinia, closes after just 31 performances; the critics complain that “it contains too little of the coloured coon Mr Bert Williams presenting his celebrated corkface routines.” When George suffers a stroke onstage, it’s the end of Walker and Williams; Bert goes on to be the first black performer in the famous Ziegfield Follies, but the price is his blackface, which becomes a mask behind which he hides from himself, and everyone else.

Phillips’s narrative proceeds through a series of monologues in the voices of the major characters, interspersed with what seem to be actual press clippings and song lyrics that distress 21st-century sensibilities. He goes heavy on the manifold ironies of this West Indian man self-condemned to act out the insulting stereotype of a black American, a stereotype that, over the course of his own career, comes to embarrass almost everyone around him. But Phillips’s understated, almost naively simple prose — which sometimes reads like a man trying hard to keep his cool — has a dampening effect on his characters’ passions and, worse, on his readers’ emotions. The story of Bert Williams contains so many things to be angry or sad about — and, scrupulously researched, the novel documents them all — but Dancing in the Dark never achieves real tragedy, or even real psychological tension. This is an excellent study of the meaning of race and identity in early 20th-century America. But scholars should write studies; novelists should appeal to their readers’ hearts. Only in the brief epilogue — when Phillips returns us to the Bahamas, and shows us Bert and his father standing on a beach, full of hope for the future — does something like genuine feeling stir, a glimmer in the shadows.