Dancing in the Dark

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Knopf, 2005 - Fiction - 209 pages
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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 Darkis 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.

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Dancing in the dark

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This novel centers on the life of Bert Williams, the black vaudeville performer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He and his partner George Walker performed to wild acclaim on New York City ... Read full review

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About the author (2005)

Caryl Phillips was born in St. Kitts, West Indies. Brought up in England, he has written for television, radio, theater, and film. He is the author of three books of nonfiction and seven previous novels. His last novel, A Distant Shore, won the 2004 Commonwealth Prize. His awards include the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, a Guggenheim fellowship, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Phillips lives in New York City.
Caryl Phillips’s The Final Passage, A State of Independence, The European Tribe, Higher Ground, Cambridge, Crossing the River, The Nature of Blood, The Atlantic Sound, A New World Order, and A Distant Shore are available in Vintage paperback.

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