'The funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew.' This is how W.C. Fields described Bert Williams, the highest-paid entertainer in America in his heyday and someone who counted the King of England and Buster Keaton among his fans.
Born in the Bahamas, he moved to California with his family. Too poor to attend Stanford University, he took to life on the stage with his friend George Walker. Together they played lumber camps and mining towns until they eventually made the agonising decision to 'play the coon'. Off-stage, Williams was a tall, light-skinned man with marked poise and dignity; on-stage he now became a shuffling, inept 'nigger' who wore blackface make-up. As the new century dawned they were headlining on Broadway. But the mask was beginning to overwhelm Williams and he sank into bouts of melancholia and heavy drinking, unable to escape the blackface his public demanded.
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 twelve works of fiction and non-fiction. Crossing the River was shortlisted for the 1993 Booker Prize and Caryl Phillips 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. A Distant Shore won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize in 2004 and Dancing in the Dark was shortlisted in 2006.