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Dancing in the Darkby Caryl Phillips
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"Picking up from the cultural criticism collected in A New World Order (2001), Phillips goes one step further, imagining himself into the life of Burt Williams (1874 1922), a vaudeville performer who became, in the turn-of-the-century years before Jack Johnson's championship, the most famous of black Americans. The result is not so much a novel as a loving biographical fiction, one in which Phillips, perhaps channeling Williams's natural (and often challenged) sense of dignity and propriety, shows the more humiliating aspects of his life in a kind of half light. Williams was the first black performer to don blackface and was a master, with partner George Walker, of the cakewalk. 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 — as well as to Walker's (who reacted very differently), and to those of their wives, Lottie Williams and Aida (née Ada) Overton Walker. Williams's life — emigration from the Bahamas; hardscrabble youth marked by racism; hard climb to stardom; relatively heavy drinking and dissipation; early, childless death — emerges piecemeal. Beyond a few set pieces, Phillips shies away from a full-on dramatization of Williams and Walker's stage act. (He includes some verbatim dialogues, songs and contemporary reviews instead.) The whole is suffused in Phillips's brilliant, if here filigreed, light. (Sept. 18)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"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 a league with Toni Morrison and V. S. Naipaul." Booklist (Starred Review)
"Phillips is able to conjure up, among other things, the act of dying in poetic and haunting images. His new work is a beautifully told, sad, and meaningful story, and is highly recommended..." Library Journal
"A provocative, illuminating novel..." Kirkus Reviews
"Dancing in the Dark is nothing less than [Phillips'] best work — cerebral, tender, masterful in its scope and vision..." Miami Herald
"Dancing in the Dark lacks the nuance of Phillips' previous prize-winning novel, A Distant Shore. Still, it's an artful rendition of an important and neglected figure." Seattle Times
"Phillips writes powerfully about philosophical and political questions through the exacting minds and complex souls of his characters....These questions are as resonant now as in the first years of the previous century." Washington Post
"This book is awkwardly written, at times painfully so....Dancing in the Dark is riveting when it recreates mores and social conventions our culture has done its best to forget, but Phillips's portrait of Bert Williams is not very convincing...." New York Times
"We owe thanks to Caryl Phillips for bringing a new generation to Williams' story — and for adding another terrific novel to his catalog in the process." San Francisco Chronicle
This novel reimagines the remarkable, tragic, little-known life of Bert Williams, the first black entertainer in the U.S. to reach the highest levels of fame and fortune. W.C. Fields called him "the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew."
About the Author
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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