Caryl Phillips's new novel is about race in early 20th-century American music-halls. But the subject that has always interested him most is lonelinessby Jonathan Heawood / September 25, 2005 / Leave a comment
Dancing in the Dark by Caryl Phillips (Secker & Warburg, £12.99)
If Caryl Phillips believes that the racial dynamics described in his new novel, Dancing in the Dark, have been superseded by a brave new world of integration, he should watch some music television. The new black is still the old black in the world of popular American entertainment. MTV is currently showing a series called Wanna Come In?, in which ultra-cool rap stars talk geeky white boys through seducing beautiful women. The black Cyranos struggle to inject some sexual magnetism into their stammering protégés, but are left in despair at the climax of every episode. These big virile black guys—the show implies—would have no trouble talking their way into any white girl’s boudoir and, once there, driving Miss Daisy wild.
It is not clear from Dancing in the Dark whether Caryl Phillips set out to describe the beginnings of this kind of cultural performance or whether his story of the early 20th-century Manhattan music hall is supposed to be read with purely historical interest. He absents himself from the narrative, leaving it up to his characters to thrash out the historical details. These were the years when America hauled itself out of the economics of slavery and into a botched racial settlement, and Phillips shows black and white America getting together to test out new versions of old identities in the playground of Broadway vaudeville. This is a record of a society on the turn, a time when “coloured men of the theatre were rewriting the rules of what it means to be a Negro in America.” These years marked the slow beginning of the end of segregation, but at the same time, and more depressingly, another more nuanced story about being black in America was just starting to take hold in these halls and theatres on the east coast.
Phillips’s hero, Bert Williams, was a real figure. Although he had to take his after-show drinks at the other end of the bar from his white co-stars, Williams was extremely successful at making his white audiences feel comfortable with his blackness. He and his partner, George Walker, developed a double act—”The Two Real Coons”—and made the jump from sharing the boards with acts billed as “The Merry Wops” and “The Sport and the Jew” to starring in their own Broadway shows. More Little And Large than Al Jolson,…