Friday, February 6, 2009

Black History Month: Dancing in the Dark

Nerd that I am, I felt compelled to check how many books I've read so far in this young year. Six. OK, I'm satisfied, especially since one was pretty fat and took a couple of weeks to read. Not that you asked, but here they are: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, Dancing in the Dark by Caryl Phillips, Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong'o, The Crab-Canning Ship by Takiji Kobayashi, Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, and The Scar of David by Susan Abulhawa. I plan to blog about Ngugi's and Kobayashi's books soon, and I already have about Abulhawa's. Petterson's, I regret to say, I found negligible, occasional prettily constructed sentences aside. Yates's was highly readable and quite compelling as an artifact of the 50s. Yet I strongly suspect that Yates didn't write the same book I read--a biting critique of the shallow, vacuous, hypocritical and supremely sexist society through which the main characters move as personified by the husband Frank, a vile character if ever there was one--so I'd be off the mark if I attempted much meaningful commentary.

Then there's Dancing in the Dark.

For Black History Month

Phillips' 2005 novel is remarkable. Another that in my opinion didn't receive its due attention. So I thought I'd do my tiny part to take note of Dancing in the Dark in recognition of Black History Month.

The novel is a fictionalized telling of the life of the great actor/singer/dancer/composer/lyricist Bert Williams. By all accounts, Williams was one of the most, if not the most, gifted stage actors of the early 20th century Vaudeville era. He was also Black, and in his artistic life he was trapped in a tragic contradiction.

For Bert Williams was known far and wide for his performance in blackface. During most of his early career, he worked in a duo with his artistic partner and best friend George Walker. In the novel, Phillips depicts increasing friction between them over the direction Williams and Walker would take--further into what is portrayed as minstrelsy-based and demeaning stereotype or, as Walker wishes and community leaders increasingly urge, striking out in a new direction. As the years pass, both men, along with their families and stage troupe, are deeply damaged to the depths of their souls by what comes more and more to seem an inescapable trap, the blackface roles demanded by white audiences, which bring them fame and some degree of fortune but at terrible psychic cost.

Williams hit the height of stardom in 1910 when he became the first Black artist signed on by the Ziegfeld Follies. In the novel, he endures continuing slights from his co-stars even as he draws huge audiences and helps make everyone rich. Offstage he reads. He drinks. He cannot meet his wife's emotional needs; he cannot meet her eyes, or his own in the mirror. He drinks and he drinks. He is a brilliant creative artist driven to despair by the racist constrictions on his art from which he feels it is impossible to break free.

Now, a century on, Bert Williams is recognized by theater historians as one of the greatest of the great, a huge huge talent. But there is always that asterisk, that what if, for his was a talent that was not permitted to blossom beyond the boundary of blackface dictated by racist society. Phillips' novel conveys this all too well. It's well worth reading.