Bert Williams may be an obscure name today, but in the first quarter of the 20th century, the West Indian-born singer/dancer/comedian was the most successful black stage performer in America. He rose to fame portraying shiftless, dull-witted ''darkies,'' essentially creating the noxious, shuffling archetype one sees in scores of old movies. The irony, of course, was that the real-life Williams was an acutely sensitive, erudite, and complex individual the polar opposite of the characters he played.
Dancing in the Dark, Caryl Phillips' richly nuanced tone poem of a book, turns on that dichotomy. Extrapolating from the known facts, the author takes us on a tour of Williams' divided soul, and the portrait that emerges is as heartbreaking as the name of the comedy team he and longtime partner George Walker founded: ''The Two Real Coons.'' Descriptions of the ways in which they debased themselves for largely white audiences make it clear that performing had as much in common with prostitution as with art for the pair.
While Phillips bluntly depicts the debilitating effects of America's casual racism, he also gives us tantalizing clues about the inner demons that might have plagued Williams. Was the wife with whom he shared a sexless marriage a beard to cover up deeply repressed homosexual leanings? (Phillips certainly implies as much.) Was Williams' premature death in 1922 caused by a broken heart after years of denying his true nature? (Again, the implication is unmistakable.)
Somewhat bemusingly, the novel shares a title with a well-known Bruce Springsteen song, but the Beatles' ''Nowhere Man'' would have been just as apt (if less alliteratively evocative). Indeed, the profoundly sad impression left by this speculative tale is that Williams was as much a stranger to himself as to those around him, a stoic who kept his pain so deeply shuttered he couldn't bear to confront it directly. With Dancing in the Dark, Phillips has exposed that putative anguish to the light of day, where it shines, brilliantly.