“Only later, after the laughter, I reclaim myself,” says Bert Williams, one of Broadway’s forgotten legends, in this week’s Yale Cabaret performance.
“Dancing in the Dark,” an original musical that premieres Thursday, aims to celebrate the life and work of this seminal figure of American theater. The musical highlights different forms of theater from Williams’ era — the minstrel show and burlesque — woven into scenes from his life. Since most of Williams’ personal life is a mystery, the production cannot be called “historical,” said Kenneth Robinson DRA ’10, who plays the role of Williams and conceived the production based on English professor Caryl Phillips’ novel of the same name.
“Dancing in the Dark” chronicles the complex and troubled relationships between Williams and those closest to him: his wife Lottie (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart DRA ’07), his partner George Walker (Eddie Brown DRA ’09) and Walker’s wife Ada (Sisi Aisha Johnson DRA ’09).
With original costumes and music, the production brings to life images of late 19th- to early 20th-century America. The theatrical element of blackface augments the production’s authenticity. Speaking of the controversial nature of this sensitive element of the performance, Robinson said the show simply portrays the reality of the times.
“We’re not glorifying it. We’re not shaming it,” he said of blackface. “We’re presenting it as it was in the service of telling the story of one of the foundational blocks of American theater.”
Robinson was, however, quick to address concerns that the show’s content was predominantly political.
“It’s not a soap box,” Robinson said. “All art is political. All art makes a statement.”
Throughout the production, instances of self-conscious laughter are accompanied by jarring moments of stark realism. For director Patricia McGregor DRA ’09, the project’s fusion of comedy and social commentary is meant to go beyond the audience’s comfort zone. Laughter, she said, is especially important in echoing Williams’ own role as a comedian in the history of American theater.
“We must strive to be the center of laughter rather than the object of it,” Williams says to Walker, rationalizing his use of blackface in order to appeal to his white audiences.
Artistic Director of the Yale Cabaret Rebecca Wolff DRA ’09 said the show is part of the Cabaret’s plan to “present work that goes to the heart of the American experience.”
“We value work that is irreverent, rebellious and relevant to our community,” she added.
McGregor agreed with Wolff. For McGregor, it is as important for “Dancing in the Dark” to entertain as it is to provoke thought and discussion.
“I want to entertain and dazzle the audience, while allowing for us to see behind the mask of the performer and look at the toll this type of entertainment takes on the human under that mask,” she said.
Robinson said time constraints — all Yale Cabaret shows must not exceed 60 minutes — presented a particular challenge to the narrative’s trajectory and limited the possibility of giving equal focus to all parts of his life.
“You only have an hour — that’s the challenge. We had to condense a lot of his childhood and focus primarily on his career,” he said.
The production engages performance as an aspect of life, exploring the interplay between expectations, stereotypes and pressures faced by all. Its central question hinges on responsibility — responsibility of the performer, the audience and the society producing the art.
“Dancing in the Dark” runs from Feb. 7 to Feb. 9 at the Yale Cabaret. Performances begin at 8 each night, with a 10:30 showing Friday and Saturday. Doors open at 6:30 and 9:30 for pre-show dinner.