Caryl Phillips


"Dancing in the Dark"

(Reviewed by Debbie Lee Wesselmann OCT 30, 2005)

At the beginning of the twentieth century, an especially hostile atmosphere existed for black Americans who, not far removed from slavery, were regarded as an undesirable subclass of citizens. Expected to know their "place," blacks rarely challenged the white establishment, either politically or socially, and remained invisible except in service positions to the white establishment. In the midst of this environment, the comedic duo of Bert Williams and George Walter emerged as an entertainment force that shook Broadway to its roots by being the first black headliners, in an all-black troupe, to perform on the esteemed stages of New York. This success had its cost, however, as Bert Williams performed in black-face and played a bumbling, shuffling caricature of a black man, while Walker played his straight man. Caryl Phillips, in his newest novel Dancing in the Dark, has chosen the duo––particularly the elegant West Indies-born Williams––as a means of exploring the rise of black performers and the strengthening of Harlem as an artistic and societal haven.

As told by Phillips, Bert Williams emigrated from the West Indies to the United States because his father wished a better life for his son without understanding that their adoptive country was the only place where they would be "encouraged to see themselves as inferior." Thus, born in a country that respected him and emigrated to one that did not, Bert never felt as though he belonged. Although his grades were high enough to get him admitted to Stanford, he chose to join a medicine show, already knowing that he could have a career with his wit and sense of comedic timing. After a harrowing tour with white performers in the lumber camps, Williams met George Walker in San Francisco, and the two teamed up. They worked their way across the United States, often fleeing cities one step ahead of enraged or trouble-making whites, until they reached New York. There, their rise to fame was sudden and complete, with the highly talented Williams the perfect stage presence feeding off Walker's seriousness.

Told in a collage of narrative from the points-of-view of Williams, Walker, their wives, and their loved ones, and through play segments and newspaper accounts, the novel moves back and forth through time, from glimpses of Williams's childhood and his early days with Walker to both untimely deaths. Phillips's portrayal of Williams, however, is the driving force behind his slim novel. This fictional Williams, both historically accurate and imagined, is torn between entertaining the masses and tossing aside racial stereotypes. The dilemma cripples him, as he knows in his heart that he will never be accepted without his burnt cork make-up and his satiric routines. Publicly, he is elegant and reserved, but privately he is a troubled man, unable to consummate his marriage and unable to communicate his true feelings. The contrast to his outspoken, carousing partner Walker is a poignant one. We know that with the black-face and cakewalk and mumbling English on stage comes a man who needs to break out of his self-constructed cage.

The disagreement between the two main characters about their role forms the central conflict: Do they give their audiences what they want, as most entertainers do, or do they, as pioneers, have a greater sense of responsibility to their race? When George says, "Listen to me, Bert, the so-called character that you're playing is a damn fool creature who has been created by the white man, and this 'smoke' fixes us in their minds as helpless failures," we see all too clearly how it applies directly to Bert, who is an enormous commercial success but a failure in his own, muddling life. Still, we cannot help but understand Bert's motives: "He stares at the contented white faces in the orchestra stalls knowing that he can hold an audience like nobody else in the city. He knows when to go gently with them, and he carefully observes their mood; he knows not to strain the color line for he respects their violence." Bert is an entertainer; George is a would-be activist. Their clash is inevitable.

Phillips's episodic method of storytelling sometimes derails the momentum of his story. The middle section ("Act II") in particular suffers from too many voices and snippets as the author relies heavily on accounts of the day and glimpses into many points-of-view. Despite the ambition of this section to give a sweeping overview of the careers and lives of Williams and Walker, it feels rushed and incomplete. Readers may find themselves wishing that the author had taken more time to develop some of the issues and situations he introduces. This novel is best when honing in on the conflicted Williams, and, by association, the times around him.

Like Williams, this novel has an elegance and an ambition that is difficult to resist. Despite the few missteps, Caryl Phillips has provided an intriguing look at black performers during a time when there were no precedents. The uneasy relationship between artist and performer becomes an important, multifaceted theme. As Williams tells Walker, "The fact is they do not like us, George, and they choose not to eat, drink, or live with colored folks, yet they must have some part of themselves that wants to be like us. But not like us truly, but some approximation of us; a strange creature of boundless appetite that they imagine to be us." This complexity, this mix of yearning and distaste, of white and black, of entertainment and politics gives Dancing in the Dark its multilayered impact.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 8 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Dancing in the Dark at the publisher's website

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"The Nature of Blood"

(Reviewed by Debbie Lee Wesselmann OCT 30, 2005)

The Nature of Blood is an extraordinary novel that embeds individual stories within the larger history of racial politics in Europe. Stephen is a doctor and a militant living in Palestine just before the creation of the state of Israel. A doctor and an indoctrinator, he visits refuge camps where Jews wait to gain entrance into Palestine. The novel then leaps back in time to another camp, though this one more horrific: the concentration camp where young Eva barely lives, physically weak and emotionally numb. Here, she meets Gerry, one of the Americans who liberate the camp, and he becomes a small, tenuous lifeline. Eva's story forms the heart of the story, as we glimpse both happier times and the depth of the psychological toll her short life has taken. The novel then tumbles even further back in time, to 15th century Venice, where Jews live in walled ghettoes and can be accused of crimes based on rumor. Here, we meet Othello, who explores Venice as a new resident, acutely aware of his outsider status in Venetian society. Phillips briefly delves into other lives: Malka, an Ethiopian Jew who has traveled to Palestine, only to find that her skin color makes her unemployable; and Servadio, a Jewish banker unjustly accused of sacrificing a Christian boy.

These disparate stories are connected through centuries of European mistrust of outsiders, a wariness that periodically gives rise to bursts of hatred and cruelty. The betrayed can become the betrayers. While history gives these stories context, the characters give them power. Eva's unreliable narration evokes the brutality of the Holocaust as powerfully as the details themselves. Stephen's decision to return to Palestine has significance and poignancy, especially because we realize what happens to those he leaves behind. The historical aspect lends a sense of predestination as well - an inescapability - because the reader knows that Othello will become irrationally jealous and will kill both Desdemona and himself, that Eva's adolescence will be cruelly interrupted by the Nazis, that Palestine will become Israel, and that racism and the fear of the other will continue indefinitely throughout the future of humanity.

The Nature of Blood is not a long novel, but its impact is huge. I highly recommend it for readers of literary fiction who are likely to find the elegant prose as engaging as the stories themselves.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 1- reviews

 



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About the Author:

Caryl PhillipsCaryl Phillips was born on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts in 1958. He grew up in Leeds and read English at Queens College, Oxford University, receiving his B.A. in 1979. He is a novelist, essayist and playwright. Much of his writing - both fiction and non-fiction - has focused on the legacy of the Atlantic slave trade and its consequences for the African Diaspora.

He has taught at universities in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the United States, where he was Professor of English at Amherst College, Massachusetts (1994-8). Since 1998 he has been Professor of English and Henry R. Luce Professor of Migration and Social Order at Barnard College, Columbia University, New York. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2000. As of 2005, he is a Professor of English at Yale University.

His novel Crossing the River was shortlisted for the 1993 Booker Prize. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and has won the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lannan Fellowship, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. After being named the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year in 1992, Caryl Phillips was on the 1993 Granta list of Best of Young British Writers. His novel A Distant Shore won the 2004 Commonwealth Writers Prize.

He lives in New York City.

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