By Caryl Phillips

Knopf. 214 pp. $23.95

Bert Williams was America's first black superstar. In fact, the West Indies immigrant was the highest-paid performer in the country in the early 20th century. A composer, singer, dancer, comedian and recording artist, he appeared with his straight man, George Walker, on vaudeville and Broadway stages when black people could only buy seats in the balcony. In 1903 the pair starred in "In Dahomey," the first all-African-American Broadway musical; they traveled to London and played a royal command performance. After Walker's death, Williams continued to break color barriers as the first black star of the Ziegfeld Follies. His most famous song, "Nobody," has been recorded by Perry Como, Johnny Cash and Nina Simone. And for nearly all of his career, he worked in thick blackface, a racist cartoon drawn on his own handsome black face, playing what Caryl Phillips calls, "a shuffling, dull-witted, clumsy, watermelon-eating Negro of questionable intelligence."

This paradox -- the enormity of Williams's talent forced through the funnel of the times into low stereotype -- is at the heart of Phillips's novel, Dancing in the Dark. Phillips writes powerfully about philosophical and political questions through the exacting minds and complex souls of his characters, particularly Walker and his dancer and choreographer wife, Ada Overton. These questions are as resonant now as in the first years of the previous century. If you're a rarity -- say, a black performer on a white stage -- what are your responsibilities, and to whom? Your people, your audience, your art, posterity? How quickly do you try to make your uneducated audience progress? And what kind of sense does it make that whites themselves don blackface? "The fact is they do not like us, George," Williams says to Walker, "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."

Phillips's Walker is the conscience and engine of Dancing in the Dark, brash, charming, thoughtful, a faithless husband but an ambitious activist. Offstage, he pushes for dignity and range in the team's material, believing "that the day has come for the Negro to storm the American stage and stake his claim to a position of equality alongside his fellow white performers." The struggle between Walker's dreams of an African American theater and Williams's willingness to play to the audience's lowest expectations is delicate, moving, dramatic.

But success for Williams is a sort of slavery: He's celebrated and rich because he hides himself -- his intelligence, his good looks -- with blackface and feigned idiocy. He may insist that his onstage persona is just a stereotype humanized, but he knows white audiences are delighted to have their prejudices confirmed by his performance while blacks -- including his father -- view him with growing disdain and disappointment.

The novel switches time frames, narrative devices and tenses, impressionistically covering the span of Williams's American life. Williams and Walker meet, and they struggle to perform in any scrap of show business that would have them. They work their way to New York in vaudeville as "The Two Real Coons."

W.C. Fields, who knew what he was talking about, said that Williams "was the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew." You never doubt Williams's sorrow or the reasons for it. But Fields's first claim is harder to understand. Nothing dates faster, harder, than popular humor. Phillips decides not to try (though he does include some excerpts from the act). There are good reasons for this, not the least of which is that when you portray something as demeaning servitude, it's hard to find anything good to say about it. And yet it's a problem. The reason Williams is compelling now is not that he corked up and played the fool -- plenty of performers of color did so -- but that he was so brilliant at it that he smashed color lines.

Success can enslave the most privileged performer. It makes sense that for a performer of color, especially with literal slavery in living memory, the bonds of that slavery are more encompassing and painful. Still, an artist of genius -- and Williams clearly was one -- sometimes has mastery over his audience, despite the humiliation, despite the audience's condescension, despite laughter in the wrong key and from the wrong people. But the Williams of Dancing in the Dark is a sad, restrained, bookish man, passionless, tentative and lonely. Even when confronted by others, he answers in interior monologues. Phillips begins his book with a haunting epigraph from Williams: "Nobody in America knows my real name and, if I can prevent it, nobody ever will." It's almost as though Phillips is too respectful of his subject's need for privacy, onstage and off. In the history of American entertainment he is a cipher. Unfortunately, he does not come much clearer here. *

Elizabeth McCracken is the author, most recently, of "Niagara Falls All Over Again."

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