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DANCING IN THE DARK
By Caryl Phillips
214 pages. $23.95. Knopf. Reviewed by Brooke Allen
Caryl Phillips's new novel, "Dancing in the Dark," is based on the little-known life of the great American vaudevillian Bert Williams (1876-1922), and the author has necessarily relied on his own fantasies of what Williams's inner life might have been as well as those of his wife, Lottie; his partner, George Walker; and George's wife, Aida. Those fantasies are often absorbing and persuasive, but they probably say more about Phillips and our own early-21st-century preoccupations than they do about these Jim Crow- era denizens of New York.
As subjects for historical novels go, Williams is an inspired choice; his strange career exemplified all the ironies and paradoxes that confronted the African-American performers of his time. The minstrel show was a longstanding staple of American culture, and Williams and Walker tried to move beyond it toward the celebration of black culture and history. Their 1903 spectacle "In Dahomey," the first all-black show to play in a mainstream Broadway theater, was groundbreaking.
Williams quickly learned, however, that it was almost impossible to violate what Phillips calls "the unwritten contract that exists between the Negro performer and his white audience."
Although Williams was a huge star and a comedian of genius W.C. Fields called him "the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew" he was stuck, apparently forever, playing the caricature of a half-witted plantation darky, in contrast to Walker's "dapper, city-slick Negro dude," another stereotype of the time. Williams even performed in blackface, donning "the mask" every night to cater to a specifically American fantasy of blackness. The white audience felt safe, Phillips's Williams comments, "watching a supposedly powerless man playing an even more powerless thing."
"Dancing in the Dark" is filled with compelling factual nuggets. But when Phillips frees his imagination and exercises his license as a novelist, the book loses force. People who knew Williams agreed that he had tremendous personal dignity and reserve. Thus Williams's sexual life, as Phillips has imagined and inferred it, may be an effective metaphor for the unmanning of Williams's entire race, but it is also yet another onslaught upon his so often assaulted dignity. We feel that the real Williams might be as outraged by the thoughts and feelings Phillips has put into his head as he was by the stage personality imposed on him by the expectations of the white theatergoing public.
This book is awkwardly written, at times painfully so. Phillips switches from the third person to the first and back again, often confusingly, and when he uses the first person it might be either Bert, Lottie, George or Aida speaking. The disorientation deepens in the second half of the book, where the switching becomes more frequent and Phillips intersperses the text with quotations from interviews, articles and reviews, sometimes unidentified.
"Dancing in the Dark" is riveting when it re-creates mores and social conventions our culture has done its best to forget, but Phillips's portrait is not very convincing. Star quality and stage genius simply don't go with the sort of deep passivity Phillips has given his character. One thing top performers have in common is a certain hedonistic joy in the act of performing; if they didn't have it, they would lose their audience. Phillips's Williams lacks this, and sometimes you wonder why he bothers to go on stage at all.
Phillips was led to his subject through an essay he wrote (contained in his collection "A New World Order") on Marvin Gaye, and in writings and interviews he has discussed the similarities in the ways black performers of different eras vaudevillians and minstrel comedians like Williams, soul performers like Gaye and contemporary hip-hop stars have packaged particular images of black manhood for white consumption. All this is fascinating stuff; but Phillips's ungainly narrative is too stained by didactic contemporary ideas about race to bring it fully to life
Brooke Allen's most recent book is "Artistic License: Three Centuries of Good Writing and Bad Behavior."
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