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1 (WINtER 2014)

As a black blackface entertainer and influential international star, Bert Williams has held a continuous fascination for theatre historians, in large part because Williams signifies the contradictions of blackface as much as he lived the history of African American minstrelsy. His work with George Walker starting in the 1890s, groundbreaking musicals of the 1900s, and career with Ziegfelds Follies in the 1910s have been detailed in numerous biographies and biographical sketches.1 These histories deem his 1922 starring vehicle Under the Bamboo Tree unrepresentative, as he was the only African American in the cast and the only actor in blackface. Were it not for the fact that Williams died during its pre-Broadway run, the musical would not have figured in discussions of the lengthy and storied career of this seminal black artist at all. For many historians, the play is little more than an unfortunate and even embarrassing coda to an otherwise complicated life on the stage.2 But the tensions surrounding the show are more nuanced than at first glance, and it deserves more space in analyses of African American theatre and Bert Williams. This article traces the history of Under the Bamboo Tree and Williamss part in it: from the script that existed before the star championed it, to the alterations created specifically for (and most likely by) him, to the various iterations and changes that occurred after his passing. Major revisions accompanied the show at every turn, and it finally struggled its way onto Broadway a far cry from the original conception. One small indication of the tortured and lengthy rewrites of
1 Ralph Allen, Bert Williams: The Two Faces of a Forgotten Star, American Legacy 10, no. 4 (Winter 2005); Ann Charters, Nobody: The Story of Bert Williams (New York: Macmillan, 1970); Louis Chude-Sokei, The Last Darky: Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006); Camille F. Forbes, Introducing Bert Williams: Burnt Cork, Broadway, and the Story of Americas First Black Star (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2008); Sandra L. Richards, Bert Williams: The Man and The Mask, Mime, Mask, and Marionette 1, no. 1 (Spring 1978); E. L. Smith, Bert Williams: A Biography of the Pioneer Black Comedian (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1992).

In many ways, this whole article is a rebuke to Yuval Taylor and Jake Austens statements about Williams in their recent book Darkest America. The volume as a whole is lazy and slapdash, but they claim that Williamss involvement in this show meant he evidently felt more comfortable working with white performers and in front of white audiences than with blacks. They ignore or had no knowledge of the influence he exerted over the production. Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen, Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop (New York: W. W. Norton, 2012), 130.



the production is the fact that it changed title four times between 1920 and 1923. It began as The Pink Slip, became Under the Bamboo Tree, and then in rapid succession was called Violet, In the Moonlight, and Dew Drop Inn. What I highlight is how the producers built the show around Williams and how it involved his whole career and place within the cultural landscape. Instead of being an anomaly, the production encompasses his conflicted legacy. His continued influence over the show, even after death, solidifies Williamss place as a true giant of the US stage, a unique talent hampered by the realities of performing in the US. It also partially explains the peculiar racist logic guiding the theatrical portrayals of African Americans in the 1920s: a complicated calculus of assumption, expectation, performativity, and burnt cork. Both the shaping of the show around Williams and the use of blackface in the production offer a variant on Joseph Roachs concept of surrogation and the later, related idea of Marvin Carlsons ghosting.3 These two powerful terms detailing aspects of performativity can help explain the reasons for and reception of this particular musical. Surrogation is a method for how culture reproduces and re-creates itself and involves the three-sided relationship of memory, performance, and substitution.4 Roachs examplesold actors performing roles they made famous decades earlier, gestures as heirloomsillustrate how, through mimicry, actorly effects can be transferred to different bodies in the minds of an expectant and knowing audience. Similarly, Carlson, in a chapter on The Haunted Body, discusses the recycled body and persona of the actor and adds the element of celebrity to surrogation.5 Celebrity means both the public persona of the actor and the methods by which the public feels it knows and relates to that personality.6 The implications of surrogation and ghosting are far-ranging; in analyzing Under the Bamboo Tree, the resonances are especially profound. This is because, for the Broadway run, Bert Williams was replaced by the white actor James Bland. The story of a black blackface artist replaced, after death, by a white blackface surrogate acts as a case study for explaining how burnt cork racially signified and what those stereotypes entailed. It also helps explain why certain elements of the musical were considered
Joseph Roach, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996); Marvin Carlson, The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2001).
3 4 5 6

Roach, Cities of the Dead, 2. Carlson, The Haunted Stage, 53. Ibid., 59.



unique and others were transferable. How do you replace the irreplaceable Bert Williams? What of him remains? We Lak-a-Both the Same: The Pink Slip First written by Walter de Leon and titled The Pink Slip, the show was a conventional comedy with little to distinguish itself in either plotting or characterization from other white musicals of the era. It is set around a hotel on an island off the coast of California. An eccentric millionaire guest has recently died, but before departing he scattered clues to a treasure chests whereabouts written on slips of pink paper around the hotel. The attention brought to the hotel complicates the romance between a layabout playboy and the daughter of a wealthy businessman, who are united at the end as the treasure is revealed to be cases of champagne and whiskey. (The show was written at the start of Prohibition.) Assisting in the creation and eventual resolution of the chaos is the black porter, Ananias Washington. In the original script, the porter is very much in line with the portrayal of black servants and the black working class in white-authored plays from the early twentieth century. Ananias, as written, is a lazy, broke gambler, and a bit of a con man. Underneath it all, though, hes loyal and always willing to help the white characters reach their goals in romance and advancement, as he has none of his own. (One of the holes to the plot involves Ananias selling information about the locations of the hidden clues to the hidden treasure; the play assumes hed take a twentydollar handout over collecting the spoils himself.) In addition to his lack of motivation, the writing is steeped in minstrel showstyle dialect. For example, here is a quick exchange from shortly after Ananiass first entrance: Joe: That paper [wont] do you no good. What you got to have is a pink paper. Porter: Yes, sir. But where is them pink papers at?7 The characters lines are filled with such malapropisms. How the script first found its way to Williams and his producer Al Woods is unclear, but there were some obvious attractions for the entertainer. The Pink Slip porter shares similarities with characters Williams played in earlier black musicals and Follies shows. His roles were motivated by the lure of easy money and evinced an earnest yet bumbling nature. But his gift for pantomime and penchant for situational humor meant that the

Under the Bamboo Tree file, Shubert Archives.



characters, though still subservient, had a depth and humanity. They did not require the evocation of stereotype for laughs. Williams, it should be noted, never spoke in heavy dialect like that of Ananias in the initial script. His diction, in the many recordings of his songs and skits, is clipped and sometimes ungrammatical but never minstrelized in a demeaning where is them, way. His process of developing character is described in an essay he wrote in 1918, The Comic Side of Trouble. Considering himself an expert mimic and observer of the human condition, he writes: Many of the best lines I have used came to me by eavesdropping. For, as I have pointed out, eavesdropping on human nature is one of the most important parts of a comedians work. . . . I took to studying the dialect of the American negro, which to me was just as much a foreign dialect as that of the Italian.8 Throughout this sophisticated piece, Williams is cagey in the way he distances himself from the racist legacy of minstrelsy. Williams dismisses racist caricature because it is bad art: the joke of the negro with a razor is stale and old minstrel routines arent funny.9 Despite the limitations to his character as written, Williams seized The Pink Slip and made it his own. On 23 December 1920 he signed a contract with De Leon. In exchange for $500, he was granted the sole and exclusive rights, license and privilege to produce and present, or cause to be produced and presented, the aforementioned dramatic composition as a comedy or musical comedy or farce through out [sic] the world.10 In addition to this, the contract gave him complete control over the script he was allowed to make changes and bring in other playwrights to alter the plot and dialogue. Although this was not nearly the level of involvement he had with his early musicals, it was significant, and he had more control than at the Follies over the decade previous. One of the first things he did was hire black composer Will Vodery to improve the score and write numbers specifically for him. After the playwright De Leon, composer Vodery, star Williams, and producer Woods were on board, the impresarios Lee and J. J. Shubert

33, 60.

Bert Williams, The Comic Side of Trouble, American Magazine, January 1918, Ibid., 34.

10 Agreement between Bert Williams and Walter de Leon, 23 December 1920, Under the Bamboo Tree file, Shubert Archives.



Fig. 1. A photo of a blackfaced Bert Williams from the time that he began working on Under the Bamboo Tree. Library of Congress archive. Call number LC-US 262-64924.

took a vested financial interest in the project in 1922. In addition to producing the show, they added their nationwide chain of theatre houses to the production. In the 1920s, the Shubert organization was one of the most powerful entertainment conglomerates in the country.11 In backing The Pink Slip, they understood Williamss central role in the success of the production, and that the show would be built around him. Not only did Williams receive above-the-title billing, but he earned $1250 a week (more than double the next highest salary in the cast), as well as ten percent of the gross.12 This detail speaks volumes not only of Williamss importance to the show but also, from a business standpoint, to his importance for filling houses in various theatres in major metropolitan areas around the country. This same contract also belies the stars concerns about the continued pervasiveness of racism and segregation in the country. One line of the contract stands out: You further agree that under no circumstance
At their height, Lee and J. J. Shubert owned and operated a thousand playhouses around the country. Shubert Archives, Introduction,, (accessed 14 July 2013).
11 12

Under the Bamboo Tree file, Shubert Archives.



is the show to be booked in the South.13 Despite the availability of Shubert houses in the region, Williams wants guarantees that he will not have to perform there. This clause, buried in a contract, is a more explicit acknowledgement of Williamss awareness of oppression against blacks than is to be found in his public writings and performances. With the backing of the Shuberts, a national chain of playhouses, and a bankable black star (especially for white audiences), the show itself underwent a series of sometimes radical changes which further pushed Williams to the forefront. Some of the alterations were at the behest of Williams; as was his method during his long career, he humanized his two-dimensional character through subtle shifts in tone and presentation. Other changes advertised the marquee performer in generalizing and essentializing ways. By building on his decades of stage engagements and years as a recording star, the show conformed itself to his known, understood celebrity.14 All of this signaled his particular place in US culture: what he meant, what he signified, and in what way he represented blackness to the country. I Lak-a-Change Your Name: Under the Bamboo Tree The Shuberts shifted the focus of the show squarely to Williams and the persona he had cultivated for decades. The first major change was the title: The Pink Slip became Under the Bamboo Tree. The alteration is, in some ways, inexplicable, but makes sense when considering how representations of black Americans circulated through cultural products during this time. The new title alluded to a 1902 song of the same name, written by three black men: music by Bob Cole and lyrics by brothers J Rosamond and James Johnson. It was popular in white vaudeville and was sold as sheet music. The lyrics describe a Zulu princess of royal blood but dusky shade wooed by her suitor though the romantic words of the refrain: If you lak-a-me, lak I lak-a-you And we lak-a-both the same, I lak-a-say, this very day, I lak-a-change your name;


Al Woods to J. J. Shubert, 24 October 1921, Under the Bamboo Tree file, Shubert

In 1920 one million copies of fourteen Williams recordings were shipped to US stores. Tim Brooks, Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 18901919 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 144.



Cause I love-a-you and love-a-you true And if you-a love-a-me, One live as two, two live as one Under the bamboo tree.15 The dialect is mild by the standards of the day: its in the chorus but not the verses and suggests a regional accent rather than an inability to master the English language. These artists were subtly undermining and altering minstrelized black dialect, which gives the tune a political edge not readily apparent to consumers. The song, like the vague African primitivism sweetly evoked, circulated for decades.16 But the number had no relation at all to the musical or its star, and its connection to the play was so tenuous and rushed that, in the earliest draft in the Shubert Archives, the name of the hotel is scratched out and Bamboo Tree Hotel is penciled in at the margin. Bert Williams wasnt known for singing the tune, as he was for so many others. And, according to Mable Rowlands, Pink Slip was the title he preferred.17 The creators didnt even bother to add the song to the show, an easy enough step considering the stitched-together relationship between the book and the musical numbers. So why was this done? The Shubert brothers were undoubtedly behind the alteration: they had recently joined the production and were aware of how to market a show in a way that would sell tickets to their theatres. The use of Under the Bamboo Tree is indicative of the countrys continued awareness of the song in the decades after it was first penned, which the Shuberts hoped would signal something about the production. Also, the fact that they chose it over Williamss objections speaks to the tension about marketing and selling the show. A vague sense of exoticism and blackness had a hold over what Williams meant to the producers and what the producers hoped he meant to the consumer. The songs Zulu maiden love plot, African setting, foreign fauna, and mild dialect contributed to the overall belief in the meanings of blackness.
Bob Cole, James W. Johnson, and J. Rosamond Johnson, Under the Bamboo Tree (New York: Jos. W. Stern and Co., 1902).
15 16 It was even referenced in T. S. Eliots 1932 poem Sweeney Agonistes: Fragments of an Aristophanic Melodrama, quoted in Susan Gubar, Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 146. Judy Garland sings it in the 1944 movie musical Meet Me in St. Louis.

Mabel Rowland, Bert Williams: Son of Laughter (New York: The English Crafters, 1923), 166.



The star lost control over the marketing but still had a strong influence over the production itself. Ananias Washington underwent major changes after Williams took over, mainly in ways that humanized the character through his speech patterns and contributions to the plot. He became more like Williamss onstage persona that he had been portraying for decades, the Jonah Man figure, defined by Williams in The Comic Side of Trouble: I am the Jonah Man, the man who, even if it rained soup, would be found with a fork in his hand and no spoon in sight, the man whose fighting relatives come to visit him and whose head is always dented by the furniture they throw at each other. There are endless variations of this idea, fortunately; but if you sift them, you will find the principle of human nature at the bottom of it all.18 In his musicals, song recordings, and Follies scenes, Williams perfected this trod-upon sad clown who always gets the worst of it but struggles onward. Ananias is still the porter in the hotel, but he is less greedy and lazy, and more overworked and misunderstood, than in the original script. The newly dubbed Under the Bamboo Tree shifted emphasis from the love conquers all or hidden treasure narratives to the plotless porter, who became more involved in its comedic schemes and machinations without himself gaining anything other than a few bottles of booze. The dialect of the character was also toned down. The short quote above from The Pink Slip was slightly altered: Joe: That paper wont do you no good. What you got to have is a pink paper. Porter: Yes sir. Thats what the notice says. You got to have pink papers.19 Such small shifts in wording and emphasis could have a huge impact on a show when amplified over two acts. The play was doctored up by white playwright Edward Delany Dunn, who thereafter shared credit for the script. (In a later note to the Shuberts, Dunn wrote, I am going to stick
18 19

Williams, The Comic Side of Trouble, 33. Under the Bamboo Tree file, Shubert Archives.



right on the job till this play is on and over.20) As this softening of dialect came in response to Williamss involvement with the show, a plausible inference is that the star was the driving force behind the changes. In Under the Bamboo Tree, Ananias gets the last word in both act one and act twoconcluding the musical with the characters tagline, Use your brain man. Use your brain.21 The alterations and shifts in tone regarding plot, character, and dialect were minor compared to the changes to the music. Whole numbers were written for Williams and inserted into the show on the flimsiest of presences. The song Puppy Dog was composed by Vodery as an act two number that put Williamss trademark persona on display. Onstage with only an abandoned canine, he sang: When folks look at you, The first thing they do Is to laugh. You aint comical but You is such a mutt, They just laugh. Your earses and your pawses, too, Dont look like they was meant for you The reason I like yous because You remind me of me; Im telling true.22 A second song, Judge Grimes (sometimes called Old Judge Grimes) was also written specifically for Williams and also bears no connection to the show. The lyrics describe a man who slips on a banana peel and falls down a coal chute but, due to further bad luck, is brought up in front of the titular judge and convicted of various crimes: [U]nlawful entry when in the [coal] hole you went Removing the lid without the [owners] consent Breaking your leg to cheat and defraud Then going to the hospital just to keep from paying board . . .


21 22

Edward Dunn to J. J. Shubert, 23 February 1923, Dew Drop Inn file, Shubert Under the Bamboo Tree file, Shubert Archives. Quoted in Rowland, Bert Williams, 171.



And on and on.23 With the mood of oppressed alienation, Puppy Dog and Judge Grimes echo tunes from Williamss repertoire stretching back to his signature song Nobody: a great paean to self-negation written for Williams in 1905 and continually demanded from him. 24 Under the Bamboo Tree traveled during the winter of 1922-1923 to polish it up for Broadway: first several cities in New Jersey, then Cincinnati, Chicago, and Detroit. The reviews were generally kind to the production and devoted a large portion of their space in praising the star for his antics. Several of them utilized worn but durable racist assumptions about the entertainer, demonstrating that, even at this late stage in his career, Williams could not escape such patronizing comments. One reviewer of the Chicago run noted, It is in such bits of eternal primitive comedy that Bert Williams genius for acting betrays itself. He is the arch comedian of suffering, of hard luck, of gloom. Nobody comes within reach of him in this field, not even Chaplin. The same article ends with a curious rhetorical flourish, upending Rudyard Kiplings most famous poem in order to praise Williams: Nature was good to Williams when she gave him the voice of a great tragedian and the body of the knight of la Mancha, but when you consider how little the playsmiths even have done for this brilliant artist you must admit that he has made a brave job of the black mans burden.25 It is true that his talents were hampered by weak or limiting material. But if the white mans burden in Kiplings conceptualization is conquering and dominating the earth, this reviewer believes that the burden for African Americans is to entertain. A later review is even more baldly demeaning, writing that Williams is the sole living exponent of the rare old coon essence of another era of black joy in shuffle and wing. . . . There is a little pathos in his long simian arms and splay feet as he swings lazily into a shuffle or idles along his thieving way as the porter.26 In addition to its nauseating references to coons and primates, the mindset of the reviewer is similar to the one above. Both view Williams, the actor, as a haunted body: representative of his own personal successes and also of all African American entertainers. They both patronizingly essentialize the performer by discussing his talent as something effortless and natural: hes not performing, hes just
Old Judge Grimes in Under the Bamboo Tree file, Shubert Archives. In the margin of this typed sheet someone has added Williams Lyric in pencil.
23 24

Chude-Sokei, The Last Darky, 35.

25 Aston Stevens, Bert Williams as a Lying Porter, Under the Bamboo Tree file, Shubert Archives. 26 Amy Leslie, Bert Williams in Under the Bamboo Tree, Under the Bamboo Tree file, Shubert Archives.



being himself. The quotes pulled from the two reviews are extreme in their articulation of racismmany were pleasant and congratulatory to Williamsbut such sentiments complicate the message of his performance and how he was being read by his audience.27 Changes were made at each step of the tour; the production drew poor houses and rarely recouped its weekly expenditures. Williams suffered immensely from various ailments at the time.28 One Chicago reviewer noticed that, during the performance, he forgot the lyrics to Judge Grimes.29 The weak material that Williams had to work with, along with his awareness that he was carrying the show, certainly contributed to his worsening condition. In Detroit, Williams collapsed mid-performance, something initially assumed by the audience to be a part of the fun.30 He was rushed home to New York, and died on 4 March 1923. After the stars death, most historical accounts of the show end, and Williams biographers decline to discuss it further, yet the show did continue. On the one hand, the rest of this story illustrates the efficiency of the Shuberts, who became sole producers of the show and were unwilling to abandon a product in which they had already invested time and money. More importantly, some of the ways the show had been adjusted to fit Williamss persona also remained; residues of his Jonah Man character that persisted through all subsequent versions. I Love-a-You and Love-a-You True: Violet and In the Moonlight With the star gone, the producing duties fell squarely on the Shuberts, who became involved because of Williams in the first place. The show briefly halted, but continued its run by the end of March 1923. The overhaul was extensive. The most cosmetic change to the show was the title, which indicates the changes to plot and music. Without the great black vaudevillian leading the cast, the Shuberts abandoned the title Under the Bamboo Treewhat would be the point, given that the title signified Williams himself ? With Williams gone, the porter character no longer com27 Also, not one review mentions that Williams performed in blackface; it wasnt news for him to do so.

He had to be dressed and undressed at each performance. Forbes, Introducing Bert Williams, 318.
28 29 30

Stevens, Bert Williams as a Lying Porter.

Forbes, Introducing Bert Williams, 319. There are any number of sad, poetic notions to be extracted from this scene. Caryl Phillipss fictional life of Williams finds an uncomfortable poignancy in the fact that he collapsed in the same city where he first blacked up more than a quarter-century earlier. Caryl Phillips, Dancing in the Dark (New York: Vintage, 2005), 205.



manded attention and the emphasis returned to the romantic plot which always drove the narrative forward. In the original show, the neer-do-well male lead successfully courted the daughter of a businessman. But in the new iteration, Violet, the hotels poor but honest hairdresser, falls in love with a profligate millionaires son. The hidden treasure plot remained, but the central tension is around the emotional obstacles keeping the two lovers apart.31 Whereas the continued racial divide between black and white was the reason for enjoying Under the Bamboo Tree, Violet hoped to please its audiences by surmounting class differences. Bamboo Tree ends with the wisecracking porter having the last word; Violet concludes with a lovers embrace. After tinkering with the show, and some false starts, the Shuberts were able to turn the show into a modest Broadway success by reversing course and emphasizing again the character of the black porter. At some point in March of 1923, the name of the show was changed to In the Moonlight and James Barton was brought on to play Ananias. By the time it reached New York that summer, the show was called Dew Drop Inn. You Lak-a-Me, Lak I Lak-a-You: Dew Drop Inn Dew Drop Inn arrived on Broadway in May of 1923, two and a half years after the contract between Williams and De Leon was signed and two months after the stars demise. The book and plotnever a strong point, as reviewers over the years could attestwas now a patchwork of competing influences and emphases by playwrights, lyricists, composers, and performers. The plot still included the hidden treasure, the love conquers class romance, and the eccentric antics of hotel guests. With such thin soup to serve, the Shuberts made it a success by returning the shows focus to the porter. The man chosen for the role was James Barton, a white vaudevillian novelty dancer. (Dance was one element of musical theatre that had not been hopelessly filigreed by the many changes.) Though he had never performed in blackface before, it was essential for the show that he don the burnt cork.32 A particular racist logic allows for the replacement of a black blackface performer with a white performer in blackface, a particular anonymity that the mask allows, a particular surrogation which occurs. Considering the circumstances under which Barton joined the production, through a vacancy created by the absence of an original, the actor
31 32

Violet file, Shubert Archives.

James Carey, Dew Drop Inn: James Barton Appears in Blackface in Musical Comedy at the Astor, Dew Drop Inn file, Shubert Archives.



himself becomes a performative effigy, in Roachs terminology.33 He incorporates and echoes Williams, a comparison which extends not only to Williamss role in the show but his whole performative repertoire and life. The Shuberts could have chosen a black blackface performer as the replacement. Not only were there a number of African American men, like Johnny Hudgins, who also wore blackface onstage, but there were several who directly billed themselves as Williamss successor. Because Williamss performance style and mannerisms were so recognizable, several entertainers tried to steal his oversized shoes. One was Hamtree Harrington, who called himself as the vest pocket Bert Williams even before the performer passed. In the 1922 Strut Miss Lizzie, Harrington performed a skit called Darktown Poker Club in which he played an entire poker game by himself and loses, a pantomime which was one of Williamss most famous skits from his solo days with Ziegfelds Follies.34 Also after Williamss demise, both Harrington and Eddie Hunter (in the black-cast musical How Come) publicized themselves as heir to his position as the preeminent black blackface star in the country. Despite these candidates, Barton was given the role. His performance was a real return to racist caricature, despite the changes to the dialogue at Williamss insistence which remained in the final version of the play. The most radical change was to the choice and placement of the songs. Both of the Williams specialty numbers were cut. An actual dog, included in Bamboo Tree to justify the song Puppy Dog, remained, though the number disappeared. Judge Grimes was removed as well. And the only remaining song for Ananias in the show was the act one number Porter! Porter! that was used at his entrance. In the refrain, he sings: Ladies always calling Porter! Porter! Make me wish my working hours were shorter; Porter, take my trunk out! Porter, throw this drunk out! Nearly all the time.35 Ananias is still the overworked underling and the song is, for once, related to the plot and characterizations of the book. But whereas
33 34

Roach, Cities of the Dead, 36. Strut Miss Lizzie clippings file, New York Public Library for the Performing Dew Drop Inn file, Shubert Archives.




Fig. 2. A promotional photo of James Barton in blackface with his canine friend. The Shubert Archive.

Puppy Dog and Judge Grimes were equated with Williams himself, Porter! Porter! circumscribes the place of the character as limited to his job. The combination of removing the Williams songs, which had humanized the porter, and the performance of a white man in blackface in the role changed the audiences expectations. It signaled that the character Ananias Washington was no longer a variation on the Jonah Man but rather a minstrel buffoon. The significantly less vocal porter, with his parody dances, signified this. Reviewers were primed to read the character this way by the Shuberts. In the press release for Dew Drop Inn, Ananias is labeled a lazy, lying conniving Senegambian, wording that was not, in any way, used when promoting Under the Bamboo Tree.36 (I doubt Williams would have stood for it.) The reviews of Dew Drop Inn discussed Bartons role in the success of the production. In contrast to the reviews of Under the Bamboo Tree quoted above, these pieces illustrate the complex negotiations about defining blackness that were happening on the stage. From a twenty-firstcentury perspective the terminology can be brutal, more so because of the essays playful tone, yet they demonstrate how memory and performance, in Roach and Carlsons conceptions of the terms, allow for a substitution. They illustrate how, for US audiences in the 1920s, race and culture are




hopelessly intertwined. The reviews of Dew Drop Inn were mixed, but all praised Barton for elevating weak material through his comedic antics. Several of the shows clippings in the Shubert Archives make no mention of blackface at all, though most do, and most draw comparisons between Barton and Williams. Mr. Barton is to be seen in this sentimental extravaganza as a forlorn negro porter of the Bert Williams type, wrote one.37 Another takes the comparison to a notable extreme: James Barton made his first appearance in black face in Dew Drop Inn at the Astor Theatre last night and suddenly transformed himself into a complete Ethopian [sic] Art Theatre in his own person. . . . He is as negroid as Bert Williams used to be.38 This final sentence is quite shocking. Is the reviewer saying that negroid is a stage convention, a type of black clown? Or that Barton becomes racially, not just perceptively, black through his performance? The ambiguityI honestly dont know what the reviewer meantis as evocative as any definitive answer, and certainly explains how the blackface mask continued to both obscure and delineate race into the 1920s. Several other reviews explain what it meant to be a blackface performer in the 1920s, particularly by addressing the fact that this was Bartons first time wearing the minstrel mask. The always droll Alexander Walcott, in lauding the performance, wrote, It is a temptation to begin by reporting that he is a far more crafty and amusing blackface comedian than [Al] Jolson or [Frank] Tinney or Eddie Cantor. In this, the reviewer is comparing Barton to a host of famous white blackface vaudevillians. Walcott continues by explaining his reasoning: Certainly he is far more successful than any of them in suggesting the engaging and lackadaisical quality of the darkey, for, fortified by several years in a river boat show, Barton rubs a little burnt cork on his face and drifts on to the Astor stage as a true levee darkey from New Orleans.39 As had often been the case with white minstrels, stretching all the way back to T. D. Rice, Walcott ties authenticity to an entertainers biography.40 What is elided in his approvPercy Hammond, James Barton and a Comic Dog Make Fun in Dew Drop Inn. Dew Drop Inn file, Shubert Archives. James Barton in Dew Drop Inn, Dew Drop Inn file, Shubert Archives. I assumed the reference to Ethiopian Art Theatre was a crass dismissal of the Little Theatre movement of the Jazz Age, but the actual Ethiopian Art Theatre was created in Harlem in 1924. Errol Hill and James Hatch, A History of African American Theatre (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 514, n12.
39 38 37


Alexander Walcott, The Incomparable Barton, Dew Drop Inn file, Shubert See Dale Cockrell, Demons of Disorder: Blackface Minstrels and Their World (New



ing statements is that Barton never before performed in blackface; thats not what contributes to his expertise. Just by being an actor on a riverboat, in proximity to stevedores and other working-class African Americans, Barton learns his engaging and lackadaisical quality. This is what makes Bartons performance more true than the others. Another review of Dew Drop Inn is critical of the use of minstrel makeup, and seems to put the reason for Barton having to black up on the legacy of Williams, which in itself is quite astounding: Incidentallyit really does seem quite incidentallyBarton has taken to blackface. For Dew Drop Inn is the last piece made for the late Bert Williams. The result of charcoaling Barton is about fifty-fifty. He loses some of his comic expression in the burnt cork, but his Negro dialect is very nearly as good as Bert Williamss own. Maybe the novelty of this Afro-American alliance turns the scale.41 The reviewer indicates that Bartons individuality is obscured by the generalized, generic blackness of the minstrel mask and praises his vocal stylings. This much is clear; it is the final sentence which confounds. The novelty is not white racial impersonationis it that Barton assumes a role originally played by a black actor? If so, then there is a particular American twist on Roachs conceit of the performed effigy in this reviewers racial calculus. An alliance is a pact or union between opposing factions which, in this instance, is a racial suturing without commingling or mixingthrough Bartons performance. Such underlying assumptions continue though many of the reviews in the white dailies. One noted, [B]urnt cork changed James Bartons classic features quite beyond recognition in Dew Drop Inn at the Astor Theatre last night. . . . If some of us think that Bartons face is funnier in its natural state than when it is wearing the mask of Ethiopian art, others may contend that what is good for Al Jolson and Frank Tinney cant be bad for Jim Barton. . . . His make-up was matched by a dialect of the minstrel show variety that served its purpose.42 Similar to the previous review, Bartons individuality is obscured, a contention never levied against Williams, who instead was universally praised for his subtlety of expression. Echoing the press release about Bartons character, another article described Ananias as a lazy and lying, cunning and conniving, shiftYork: Cambridge University Press, 1997) and Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). Kenneth MacGowan, James Barton Says It in Blackface, Dew Drop Inn file, Shubert Archives.
42 Charles Darnton, James Barton in Dew Drop Inn Funniest of Dancing Comedians, Dew Drop Inn file, Shubert Archives. 41



less and slipperybut well-meaningNegro porter.43 The emphasis on typeanother reviewer praised him as the very best of the performers of that type44relies on easy racist categorizing that could be evoked through the minstrel show tropes such as blackface. Under the Bamboo Tree: Bert Williamss Legacy What Bert Williams meant during his lifetimeto African Americans and to the entertainment worldhad been discussed and debated since his rise to international prominence at the beginning of the twentieth century. The dominant feeling fluctuated widely in different racial contexts and decades. The first posthumous assessment of Williams was published the same year as both his death and Dew Drop Inns Broadway debut. Bearing the slightly patronizing title of Bert Williams: Son of Laughter, it is a collection of essays written by friends in the entertainment world, like Eddie Cantor, as well as political figures such as W. E. B. Du Bois. Editor Mabel Rowlands method of creating a positive legacy is to separate the performer from the blackface mask. As she states in the preface, The searching light of truth, it is intended, shall penetrate the burnt cork and show the mans nobility of character in its right relation to his mobility of characterization.45 The sentence is remarkable not only for prizing Williams from his onstage persona but also separating truth from burnt cork. The falsity of blackface is mentioned only in relation to Williamss genius as a mimic, not as a racist stereotype. But, in light of this examination, we can see that Rowlands attempt at proving Williams was not really his onstage persona largely failed. His name, blackface image, and onstage antics were marketable qualities. Rowland could not deracinate Williams from the minstrel tradition that by the 1920s he emblematized; there was no possibility of uprooting the bamboo tree. The performance of race onstage and the performativity of race in society are linked together through visual, embodied, and vocal signs and symbols. The blackface mask has always been a powerful denoter of racial difference and denigration, and Bert Williams has always been one of the most complex figures in the history of African American blackface entertainers. The Pink Slip to Dew Drop Inn transmogrification stands as an
Dew Drop Inn, Broadway Success, Attraction at Wieting Two Nights, Dew Drop Inn file, Shubert Archives. Dew Drop Inn Scores Heavily, New York Evening Post, 18 May 1923, Dew Drop Inn file, Shubert Archives.
45 44 43

Rowland, Bert Williams, vi.



uneasy testament to the place of blackface in mainstream US theatre in the 1920s and its use as a tool for stereotyping. With the substitution of Williams with Barton, the show and the character fell back into easy minstrel show caricature. This supports the commonly held belief of Williams as a reformer and humanizer of minstrel stereotypes, while also reminding us of the persistent pull of the blackface mask to reinscribe racist hierarchies.