Dancing in the Dark

Caryl Phillips, Author . Knopf $23.95 (209p) ISBN 978-1-4000-4396-5

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)

Reviewed on: 07/11/2005
Release date: 09/01/2005
Paperback - 209 pages - 978-0-09-948887-3
Open Ebook - 107 pages - 978-0-307-42543-0
Paperback - 209 pages - 978-1-4000-7983-4
Downloadable Audio - 978-1-4498-9529-7
Open Ebook - 224 pages - 978-1-4090-0243-7
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