If you want to understand, very clearly, how the struggle for racial equality played out in the early years of Broadway, read this book. If you want to better understand the life and career of “America’s First Black Star”, read this book. If you want to better understand the balancing act required of Bert Williams and other black performers, read this book.
In 1910, 37 years before Jackie Robinson would become the first black baseball player in the Major Leagues, Bert Williams signed on as a Headliner with the Ziegfeld Follies. He performed in Vaudeville shows, the Follies reviews and even wrote some original shows that gave him the opportunity to showcase not only his talent but also the talent of other black actors.
But during all of it, he had to find a way to keep two very different audiences happy. White audience members wanted to see the racist stereotype made famous in minstrel shows by white actors wearing blackface. Black audience members wanted performers like Williams to buck those expectations and portray an image of a black man who was poised, dignified, intelligent and an equal to his white counterpart in every way.
Williams dealt with the loss of his longtime partner George Walker, theaters that sometimes wouldn’t even allow black people to buy tickets, and fellow Ziegfeld performers who refused to have anything to do with him. In writing about Williams’ career, author Camille F. Forbes beautifully traces the struggle for racial equality specifically in the world of Broadway performers.
One of the most heart-wrenching encounters in the entire book is told from the perspective of fellow Follies performer, and well-known comic actor, Eddie Cantor –
“Eddie Cantor later told of a New Year’s Eve that Bert and he had planned to spend together. While out of town, they arranged to have dinner together at the hotel where Bert was ‘permitted to live provided he used the back elevator.’ As they headed out the stage door, Cantor reiterated their plan to meet up at the hotel for their meal after he picked up the food. Bert agreed. Then, as they parted, Bert said that he was on his way to the back elevator.
As Cantor listened, he noticed that Bert’s voice betrayed the merest trace of bitterness. Speechless, he stopped, and the two stood together ‘in understanding silence’. Then, Bert opened up, just for a moment: ‘It wouldn’t be so bad, Eddie, if I didn’t still hear the applause ringing in my ears.'”
And in Bert’s own words –
“In truth, I have never been able to discover that there was anything disgraceful in being a colored man. But I have often found it inconvenient in America.”
If it were in my power to do so, I would make this book required reading for every student interested in pursuing a career in the performing arts. Understanding our past can help us to build a better future.