Scott McLemee
A Double Life
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Newsday, 11 September 2005

DANCING IN THE DARK, by Caryl Phillips. Knopf, 214 pp.
 
 
Caryl Phillips' new novel, Dancing in the Dark, opens in February 1903 -- an auspicious moment for its central characters, Bert Williams and George Walker, who had become the most famous black performers in the United States, or for that matter in the world. (Williams and Walker are real figures, and the novel sticks fairly close to the historical record.) They had just conquered Broadway, starring in a musical called In Dahomey.

A few months later, they took the show to England; that summer, they would give a command performance at Buckingham Palace. They had come a long way since their beginnings, a decade earlier as a minstrel act known as "The Two Real Coons." Walker played a stylish and smooth-talking dandy, while Williams had the role of a comically dim-witted "darky."

No indignant letters, please. That was the language of the day. And if reading it now feels like a slap in the face -- well, it is the burden of Phillips' novel continually to remind us that the success of Williams and Walker never let them escape that humiliation.

At best, they could try to control it, or at least to ride it out, by exploiting the appetite of white audiences for the ritual of blackface. Minstrel shows had started in the 1830s as a form of working-class entertainment, a mixture of music and comedy in which white performers "blacked up" to act out stereotypes. It represented a kind of progress (strange to say) that black performers eventually got to play the same parts. But audiences still wanted them to smear the black cork on their faces. Otherwise, the show wasn't entertaining enough.

We are a tragically weird country.

"These were bright new monied times," as the narrative voice puts it, "in which society people were encouraged to enjoy the primitive theatrics of those who appeared to be finally understanding that their principle role now was to entertain."

It seems an endless job to unpack all the irony in that sentence. It refers to the vaudeville era, but the hip-hop allusions are unmistakable. And in focusing the story on Bert Williams, the novelist is perhaps also writing about himself, at however many removes. (Williams was born on the West Indian island of Antigua, while Phillips is from the island of St. Kitts.) It is not just a portrait of an entertainer, but of an artist who has to speak to his audience through a persona.

Off-stage, Williams was a scholarly, reserved and melancholic person - nothing at all like the grotesque character he played, shuffling his way through life in a state of good-natured confusion.

"Each night in my dressing room," Phillips has Williams think, "I have to find him, breathe life into him, make him walk, and talk, and grin. A wistful, sad, helpless man, but there is no doubt that the audiences recognizes him.... But this is not me. Surely the audience understands this. This is simply a person that I have discovered, a person the audience claims to recognize."

The lyrical and ironic tone of Phillips' narrative voice may owe something to the prose of W.E.B. DuBois -- who finished writing The Souls of Black Folk in February 1903, at just the moment "Dancing in the Dark" begins. The novel reads like a gloss on DuBois' theme of "double consciousness" in African-American life.

The black artist's challenge, wrote DuBois, was to escape "this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity" and "to merge his double self into a better and truer self."

It is hard to recognize that effort in the antics of Williams and Walker. (DuBois himself would have shuddered at the spectacle.) But this elegant, painful novel finally gives them the honor their audience never did.