DANCING IN THE DARK by Caryl Phillips (Knopf), 209 pages, 33.95 cloth. Rating: NN Rating: NN
Bert Williams is one of the most fascinating characters in American black history. Unfortunately, this is not reflected in Dancing In The Dark, a novel based on his life.
Williams, famed for his pantomime in blackface, could elicit sympathy, sadness and laughter from both black and white audiences, but the novel fails to convey a wide range of emotions. Instead, it's dominated by a uniform tone of quiet desperation.
Part of the song and dance team Williams and Walker, Williams was America's and possibly the world's most successful black entertainer at the turn of the 20th century.
In the raucous setting of the theatrical world, the characters live, love, hate and die.
They endure widespread racism in virtual silence - the book is almost completely free of dialogue, relying on mopey interior monologues and scenes of frustratingly unspoken angst.
Caryl Phillips explores Williams's psychologically corrosive choice, made early in his career, to adopt the blackface of the minstrel show.
While this subjugation of self to an offensive caricature in the name of survival may have rendered an already taciturn Williams into a complete non-communicator, that doesn't explain why this pall has to be cast over all others, including his flamboyant and priapic partner, George Walker, who eschewed the minstrel mask.
The author only breaks through his own code of silence in the book's few sex scenes, which are characterized by dialogue, anger and violence. This kind of energy could have been deployed to describe the choices blacks had to make in an unashamedly racist culture.
The characters still compel and the story moves with precision through the fascinating backstage scenes of vaudeville and Broadway.
Dancing In The Dark could tell its story with anger, darkness and occasional light, but it offers, primarily, glumness.
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