Bert Williams

Definition

Theater

  • (Egbert Austin Williams; c. 1874 - 1922)US comedian, who was the first Black entertainer to perform in a Whiteshow, and the first to be recorded on gramophone records. Williamsalso organized the first society for Black actors in 1906.

    Born in the Bahamas, he began his career in minstrel shows,in which he had to blacken his light complexion and adopt the comicdialect and shuffling gait of the stage Negro. Whenever he could Williamsunderplayed his characters, foregoing the traditional eye-rollingexaggerations.

    A modest, sensitive, and scholarly man, Williams was humiliatedby the indignities he endured before White audiences. "I'd liketo stop doing piffle," he once said, "and portray thereal Negro on stage." W. C. Fields called him "thefunniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever knew."

    From 1893 to 1908 he teamed up with George Walker (1873 - 1911),who played a flashy city slicker to Williams's shiftless melancholydupe. After a spell with Sieg's Mastodon Minstrels, the duo appearedin New York in 1896 with The Gold Bug, becoming famous withtheir song 'Good Morning Carrie'. They then starred in several all-Blackmusicals, the most successful being In Dahomey (1902), whichWilliams produced in New York and subsequently in London (with a commandperformance at Buckingham Palace).

    When Walker retired in 1909, Williams continued alone; a yearlater, despite protests from some cast members, he joined the previouslyall-White Ziegfeld Follies In February 1922 he collapsed on stageand had to be helped off, quipping, "That's a nice way to die - they was laughing at my last exit.". He died a few days later.

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