Giving a name to 'Nobody'

Bert Williams was a Broadway star who had to demean himself to get onstage. A new play gives voice to the man behind the blackface.

Published March 23, 2006

Bert Williams had one of the strangest careers in the history of American show business.

He was a Broadway star in the early 20th century, headlining in one of the first African-American musicals, In Dahomey. For eight years, he appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies, his singing, dancing and pantomime often outshining the likes of W.C. Fields, Fanny Brice, Will Rogers and Eddie Cantor. With his partner, George Walker, Williams was the first African-American artist to make a recording on disc, in 1901, and his comic monologue, Elder Eatmore's Sermon, sold 500,000 copies.

At the peak of his popularity, Williams made as much money as the president of the United States by playing a character that is often described as the black counterpart to Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp.

Yet there was a tragic ambiguity to Williams, who performed at a time when white actors in minstrel shows donned blackface to sing and dance as ignorant, shiftless, watermelon-eating fools.

At the age of 22, struggling to make his way on the vaudeville circuit, Williams, who was from the West Indies, decided to do his own "impersonation of a negro" by darkening his relatively fair skin with burnt cork.

This seemed to liberate him artistically, and in just a few years, he and Walker were the first African-American

stars, billing themselves as "The Two Real Coons" to distinguish themselves from white performers in blackface. Knowing there was no other way they could get onstage, they played the buffoonish stereotypes so degrading to black people, complete with exaggerated lips, popping eyeballs and a shuffling gait.

Williams, an intelligent, dignified man, achieved his success at a high emotional cost. Fields, his Follies colleague, called him "the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew."

Now a new play about this largely forgotten figure, Nobody: The Bert Williams Story by Frank Jenkins, is being premiered by the West Coast Black Theatre Troupe in Sarasota. There's also a new novel, Dancing in the Dark by Caryl Phillips, that imagines what it was like to be Williams.

"Bert always fascinated me because he was so successful at a time of such high racism in America," said Jenkins, speaking from his home in Los Angeles. "There he was, one of the highest paid entertainers in the world, but he still couldn't get a room in a hotel in a lot of places, couldn't eat in a lot of places. And the only way he could go onstage was as a minstrel man. He wanted to be a Shakespearean, but that was not allowed."

Jenkins, 80, who is black, remembers his parents playing Williams' hit records such as Nobody, You Got the Right Church But the Wrong Pew and Come Right In, Sit Right Down, Make Yourself at Home.

"He was a very droll singer," Jenkins said, doing a serviceable rendition over the phone of Williams' trademark song, Nobody: "I ain't never done nothin' to nobody. So until I get something from somebody sometime, I will never do nothin' for nobody no time. . ."

There are some songs in Jenkins' play, but it mainly focuses on Williams' life offstage. In one scene, he applies the burnt cork to his face. When he was working on the play, Jenkins, whose wife is TV and movie actor Lynn Hamilton (Sanford and Son), would do readings of it with friends.

"Sometimes I would read the role of Bert," he said. "I never put on the blackface to do it, but I would always wonder about how it would feel to have to do this night after night."

Jenkins likens Williams' blackface to the dramatic masks of tragedy and comedy. "If you put the mask on, you're allowed a certain leniency," he said. "It's like the fool or the court jester. Blackface gave him the freedom to do anything he wanted."

In Phillips' novel, there is an artful account of when Williams first put on blackface in Detroit in 1896:

"And the first time he looked at himself in the mirror he thought of the embarrassment and distress that this would cause his father and his heart sank. Down through his body like a stone, down through those long, oversized boots that announced him as a clown. How could a West Indian do such a thing to himself? The first time he looked in the mirror he was ashamed, but he understood that his job was to make people laugh so they did not have time to ridicule or hurt him. And so he made the people of Detroit laugh."

Nate Jacobs, 46, the founding artistic director of the black theater company in Sarasota, plays Williams in Nobody. When asked what it felt like to put on blackface, he paused before answering.

"That's not a happy thing," Jacobs said. "It feels like I'm sure he felt. It feels degrading. Why do I have to do this? What is the purpose of me disguising my person? Who am I really? As I play the character of Bert Williams, he detested it because Bert was proud of who he was."

Jacobs said he prepares for a performance of Nobody by going off by himself for a minute. "I have to get into this mood because I am dealing with a man who had a lot of challenges before him, a lot of pain."

Williams died in 1922, after collapsing onstage in a show called Under the Bamboo Tree. His legacy is complex. He influenced comedians such as Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby. Intellectuals discuss his blackface "mask" in the same terms as the issues explored in Ralph Ellison's classic novel of black identity, Invisible Man. He had a sophisticated comedic philosophy.

"All the jokes in the world are based on a few elemental ideas," Williams wrote in a 1918 magazine article. "Troubles are funny only when you pin them down to one particular individual. And that individual, the fellow who is the goat, must be the man who is singing the song or telling the story . . . It was not until I could see myself as another person that my sense of humor developed."

Still, for all his artistic gifts, Williams will forever be associated with the odious stereotypes he portrayed, and made a handsome living from, a tradition carried on by black performers like Stepin Fetchit. This aspect of his legacy was savagely evoked in Spike Lee's 2000 movie, Bamboozled, in which Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson star in "Mantan: the New Millennium Minstrel Show," a TV variety show featuring African-American performers in blackface.

For many modern-day viewers of Lee's movie, unacquainted with the Williams story, the idea of black actors in blackface must have seemed like richly inspired, over-the-top satire - not a slice of show business history from not so long ago.

For Jacobs, it is history that must not be ignored. "It's something we can't deny," he said. "This was this man's story in this era. The way I look at it, this is a story that has to be told."

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716.