Dancing in the Dark, by Caryl Phillips

Man in the ironic mask
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Imagine Buckingham Palace in June 1903: for the ninth birthday of the future king Edward VIII, a special performance is given of In Dahomey, a "Negro Musical Comedy" on tour from Broadway and playing to capacity at the Shaftesbury Theatre. The dancers hilariously strut the "cakewalk", watched by excited royals unaware it was invented by supposedly happy slaves on the plantations to mock their masters' airs. The all-black show draws rapturous laughter, although it reinforces stereotypes and demeans Africans. One of the stars is a blackface comedian called Bert Williams.

Dancing in the Dark re-imagines the extraordinary funny-sad life of Bert Williams, once the highest paid entertainer in America, and spotlights an unspoken pact between black artist and white audience. This compelling novel does not flinch at the distorting social prism that shapes racial identity, a hall of mirrors that reflects back extravagant strangers. Phillips even lets us glimpse the armature of research, in press reports and play extracts.

Bert is 11 when his Caribbean émigré family sets sail to California and begins "to learn how to be coloreds and niggers, foreigners and the most despised of homemade sons". As a tall, light-skinned, "queerly accented stranger", the youngster finds refuge from persecution in his slick wit. He plays the buffoon in a medicine show, then as a 19-year-old joins forces with George Walker, his physical opposite, who in 1893 becomes his comic side-kick.

Williams and Walker impersonate "natives" at the Mid-Winter Expositon of 1894 since the "real savages" promised for the African village exhibit are delayed. Heading east, they develop their act into a winning partnership, Walker the straight man and Williams the clown.

Two years later, Bert reinvents himself again, determined "to make people laugh so they did not have time to hurt or ridicule him": "As I apply the burnt cork to my face, as I smear the black into my already sable skin, as I put on my lips, I am leaving behind Egbert Austin Williams". The performer knows that "every night he would have to rediscover himself before he left the theatre".

Talented, elegant and intelligent but reaping rewards from playing the fool, Bert is transformed into someone else's fantasy, embarrassing his father and shaming himself. Whites who see him without disguise are disturbed that "his dignified presence... is beginning to challenge their sense of who he is. Coon." His relationships, notably with his wife Lottie, are poignantly played out in a changing political context. He is doomed to be superseded by a new breed who will be dignified with the description of "actor".

In Dancing in the Dark, Phillips shows himself a master of bluff and double-bluff. He sends us thoughtfully back to James Baldwin's reminder that "the world tends to trap and immobilize you in the role you play", to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952); and to the 19th-century poem "The Mask" by Paul Laurence Dunbar, librettist of In Dahomey: "We wear the mask that grins and lies,/ It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,- /This debt we pay to human guile;/ With torn and bleeding hearts we smile".

Margaret Busby edited 'Daughters of Africa' (Ballantine Books)