Remembering Bert Williams
I'm teaching a Musical Theatre History class this semester, and one of the exciting things about it has been that I get to do all sorts of deep dives into things that I am sort of familiar with, or only tangentially familiar with. Even with shows that I think I know really well, I'm learning new stuff every day.
Recently I got to do some more research into one of the most popular comedians of his time and the first Black man with a leading role on Broadway - Bert Williams. He was a vaudeville comedian known for doing blackface. Even while playing racist stereotypes, Williams imbued his characters with social commentary, making audiences laugh while also pointing out what it meant to be a Black man in the US.
With George Walker, he wrote "In Dahomey" - the first musical written, directed, and performed by an all Black cast that was produced at a Broadway theater. When impresario Lorenz Ziegfeld hired him to be a part of his (up until then, all white) Ziegfeld Follies, many of the white performers threatened to leave. Ziegfeld told them "I can replace every one of you, except [Williams]."
Williams faced a lot of bigotry and racism, and that weighed heavily on him. He died at the age of 47. Comedian W.C. Fields said Bert Williams was "the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew."
Fun fact - the song "Mr. Cellophane" from Chicago was inspired by Bert Williams' song "Nobody"! Here is Williams singing "Nobody." Note that this video does include images of him in blackface makeup. Can you hear the similarity between this and "Mr. Cellophane"?