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A searing new novel that reimagines the remarkable, tragic, little-known life of Bert Williams (1874–1922), the first black entertainer in the United States to reach the highest levels of fame and fortune.
Even as an eleven-year-old child living in Southern California in the late 1800s—his family had recently emigrated from the Bahamas—Bert Williams understood that he had to “learn the role that America had set aside for him.” At the age of twenty-two, after years of struggling for success on the stage, he made the radical decision to do his own “impersonation of a negro”: he donned blackface makeup and played the “coon” as a character. Behind this mask, he became a Broadway headliner, starring in the Ziegfeld Follies for eight years and leading his own musical theater company—as influential a comedian as Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and W. C. Fields.
Williams was a man of great intelligence, elegance, and dignity, but the barriers he broke down onstage continued to bear heavily on his personal life, and the contradictions between the man he was and the character he played were increasingly irreconcilable for him. W. C. Fields called him “the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew,” and it is this dichotomy at Williams’s core that Caryl Phillips illuminates in a richly nuanced, brilliantly written narrative.
The story of a single life, Dancing in the Dark is also a novel about the tragedies of race and identity, and the perils of self-invention, that have long plagued American culture. Powerfully emotional and moving, it is Caryl Phillips’s most accomplished novel yet.
“A provocative, illuminating novel that imagines the inner life and explores the cultural legacy of Bert Williams, the first popular black stage performer of America’s early 20th century . . . [It] will surely cause a stir.”
“With each penetrating and resonant book, Phillips opens another window onto the paradoxes and suffering endured by people of color in white-biased societies. In his eighth elegantly restrained yet devastating novel . . . he transports readers to early twentieth-century Harlem and fictionalizes with profound sensitivity and unflinching candor the outwardly successful yet spiritually disastrous life of Bert Williams, a trailblazing Bahamas-born performer . . . Given the drama and beauty of his writing and the freshness of his insights into both personal and social conundrums regarding race and identity, Phillips is in league with Toni Morrison and V.S. Naipaul.”
“Phillips is amazing at rendering the wrenching contradictions of “playing the coon” as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois became prominent, and what those contradictions did to Williams’s psyche . . . Brilliant.” —Publishers Weekly
“Bert Williams, Broadway’s first black megastar, masked his pride and intellect by clowning in blackface, artfully appeasing his white audience and creating an ambiguous legacy. Dancing in the Dark is Caryl Phillips’s exquisitely moving novel about a conflicted man whose wife knew him as “a deep ocean of secrets.” Only a writer as profoundly intuitive as Phillips could bring that shrouded history to light.”
—O: The Oprah Magazine
“[A] richly nuanced tone poem of a book . . . Extrapolating from the known facts, the author takes us on a tour of Williams’s divided soul, and the portrait that emerges is heartbreaking . . . With Dancing in the Dark, Phillips has exposed that putative anguish to the light of day, where it shines, brilliantly.”
“[An] elegant, painful novel.”