Born in the Bahamas in 1874, Williams had emigrated at the age of 11 with his family to southern California. Although intelligent and questing, he was prevented from achieving much in the way of study by poverty and a nagging sense of being an outsider. As a teenager he began clowning and playing the banjo, to the confusion and chagrin of his parents, yet a chance encounter in 1893 with a fellow "19-year-old coloured minstrel boy", strumming on a San Francisco street corner, would lead to a hugely successful 18-year partnership. Together, George Walker and Bert Williams graduated from medicine shows and stoical imitations of African "savages" to reluctantly, stupendously, subvert the minstrel tradition of white actors impersonating black men.
Their "Two Real Coons" was a calculated professional and personal risk - and a roaring triumph. The tall, light-skinned, dignified Williams blackened his face and played the shambling misfit; the shorter, darker, ebullient Walker, the straight man. Forming their own all-black theatre troupe, the duo toured In Dahomey, a musical set in the "wilds" of Africa, through the United States and on to England in the early years of the gleaming new American century.
The requisite hard graft and hard drinking would eventually take its incapacitating toll. Walker was felled by a stroke in 1911; Williams, who went on to work as a solo performer and as the only non-white member of the Ziegfeld Follies, died in 1922, aged 47.
Caryl Phillips's powerful examination of race and identity is realised with great delicacy. This is a fine fictional interpretation of the little-known life of a man who nevertheless features in the annals of American theatre as one of the great comedians of his age. Underneath the humiliating blackface daub, a history is uncovered of pre-1920s Harlem: routine race attacks, segregation in parks, hotels, streetcars and the theatre itself, where the white audience applauded in the best seats while the black theatregoers had to make do with the so-called "nigger-heaven" of those furthest away from the stage.
The composite reveries of Williams, Walker, their long-suffering, resilient wives, Lottie and Ada, and Williams's gentle, anguished father infuse the novel with an all-pervasive melancholy. Walker is depicted as a genial optimist, a womaniser with a taste for "late-night, secondhand love" - yet equipped with a vision which attempted to move beyond the dismaying, time-warped trajectory of the minstrel mask to pioneer the advancement of racial equality in the theatre.
Williams appears passive, asexual, introspective; for him the disguise of the corkface seemed simultaneously both a release and a prison, and finally an incongruous blurring of personas: "a face that was put in place in the last century but that, in this new century, no longer makes much sense to either white or coloured". This is a tragic story with not a word wasted, raised to an elegiac level by Phillips's supple, controlled prose.