Born in the Bahamas in 1874 and brought up there and in Los Angeles Bert Williams was disappointed early in life when his attempt to enter Stanford University was thwarted by his family's poverty. His early forays into the West Coast entertainment business saw him fare no better. After a time playing African 'savages' in white companies with his friend and theatrical partner-to-be George Walker, they made the agonising decision to 'play the coon'. Off-stage, Williams was a tall, light-skinned man with marked poise and dignity but on-stage he now became a shuffling, inept 'nigger' who pulled a wig of kinky hair over his head, wore blackface makeup, and concealed his hands in gloves. They were an immediate hit with Walker playing the dapper, straight man, and Williams the bumbling fool. As the new century dawned they were headlining on Broadway and amongst the highest-paid entertainers in the country. But the mask was beginning to overwhelm Williams who felt increasingly degraded by his situation and began to sink into bouts of melancholia and heavy drinking.
After his more flamboyant partner died in 1911 the continued personal humiliations that accompanied his professional success became difficult to bear. In 1918, after a lifetime of being denied top-billing because of his colour, his name was in lights as he headlined in the musical comedy 'Under The Bamboo Tree'. He was leading an entirely white company but he was still trapped in blackface. Dancing in the Dark is an outstanding novel as much about the tragedy of race and identity, and the perils of reinvention, as it is about the life of one remarkable man.
Caryl Phillips was born in St Kitts and now lives in London and New York. He has written for television, radio, theatre and cinema and is the author of three works of non-fiction and seven novels. Crossing the River was shortlisted for the 1993 Booker Prize and he has won the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, as well as being named the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year 1992 and one of the Best of Young British Writers 1993. His most recent book was A Distant Shore which won the 2004 Commonwealth Writers Prize.