Staying in character
While no less a celebrated figure than W.C. Fields often touted the versatility and talent of Bert Williams, the first black performer to appear on Broadway, Camille F. Forbes' thorough and captivating biography Introducing Bert Williams: Burnt-Cork, Broadway, and the Story of America's First Black Star represents the most exhaustive work done on this groundbreaking figure. Williams was a superb entertainer, marvelous storyteller, impressive vocalist and often imaginative performer, yet he worked in an era when blacks were openly lampooned and ridiculed in hideous minstrel shows and blackface routines that depicted them as unthinking, childlike buffoons and caricatures. Despite this, Williams managed to inject a degree of humanity and dignity in even the worst creative situations.
Forbes carefully follows Williams' rise to stardom and traces his involvement and participation in almost every phase of American entertainment. With access to everything from joke books to interviews, letters, films, songs and reviews (both positive and unflattering), Forbes not only tracks the evolution of Williams' career, she shows the toll it took on him, especially the rejection he received from fellow African Americans angered by his frequent use of blackface. Williams was a complex, driven and conflicted soul, skilled enough to have successfully operated in every arena from medicine shows and vaudeville to films, musical theater and early recordings, yet today he's more an object of pity or scorn than triumph. Introducing Bert Williams provides some much needed perspective and documentation regarding his life and times.