Largely-forgotten legend Bert Williams was a foundational figure in American theater, an inspiration to the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, the first major African American performer on Broadway — and a “real coon.”
His simultaneous groundbreaking success and use of blackface is a paradox in the history of American theater.
Premiering this weekend at the Yale Cabaret, “Dancing in the Dark” explores this figure’s rich career. The original musical directed by Patricia McGregor DRA ’09 draws its inspiration — and its title — from a novel by Yale English professor Caryl Phillips, and was adapted to the stage by Ken Robinson DRA ’09.
The production encompasses Williams’ experiences with the stage and those closest to him. Thus, it highlights blackface and minstrelsy, in addition to the complex relationships between Williams (Robinson), his wife (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart DRA ’07), his partner, George Walker (Eddie Brown DRA ’09) and Walker’s wife (Sisi Aisha Johnson DRA ’09).
“Dancing in the Dark” is a disturbing piece — in the best of ways. While entertaining its audience with sequins, lights, shucking and jiving, it seriously examines race relations as manifested throughout American theatrical culture. It embraces the taboo, forcing a search for reconciliation with our intricate and insidious past.
The production highlights the interplay between laughter and reflection, art and entertainment, performance and reality. And the medium through which this production chooses to convey its message echoes these tensions. Periodic interjections of uncensored commentary interrupt the narrative’s trajectory, resulting in a production best described as stark and punctuated. Scattered amidst a series of anecdotal vignettes are brief, yet sobering soliloquies. Often, the realities of society intrude quite rudely into the story of Williams’ life; at times, the production is simply disjointed.
The pianist (Aaron Moss DRA ’10) would blend into the scenery were it not for his sudden outbursts, begging the questions and voicing the observations upon which many of the story’s central questions hinge — questions related to responsibility and self-conscious buffoonery. Such moments of sincere introspection offer marked insights into the characters and their world.
“Dancing in the Dark” derives the bulk of its comedy from nuance in speech and movement, through clever puns and innuendos, coupled with exaggerated and literal choreography. In this production, it’s important to pay close attention to the subtleties in movement and speech that are at once humorous and unsettling.
The project’s overarching endeavor is transformation of its meaning, of its audience. Sets and characters realign in plain view. Scene changes take place under the thin mask of instrumental music and lowered lights. At various points within the story, actors change costumes, including the application or removal of blackface, while on stage. This clear visibility underscores the significance of the theme of transformation in relation to performances in theater and in life.
New scenes are accompanied by pronounced, emotive shifts in tone. In an atmosphere of uncertainty, the audience is signaled to react only occasionally. Self-conscious laughter infects the audience at the cue of a pioneering soul’s assessment that it is okay to laugh. At times, the use of canned applause cues the audience that it is acceptable and desirable to be entertained by scenes that, upon digestion, are charged with social commentary.
Still more, select scenes stand as physical manifestations of the psychological toll that this art form, and this society, wrought on its adherents. It demands consideration of the distinction between performer and artist. More fundamentally, it questions the difference between the entertainer and the entertained.
“Dancing in the Dark” aspires to offer a glimpse into one man’s life, but in 60 minutes, it holds a mirror to a nation. It is difficult to watch, but critical to experience.