Early Black Comedians
Promo art for Bert Williams performance at the Palace Theatre, once the country's most important vaudeville stage. Courtesy of Photofest.
Called the "saddest man I ever knew" by his fellow Ziegfield Follies performer W. C. Fields, Bert
Williams was a symbol of thwarted African American ambition. Williams, who was born in Antigua, West Indies, to an affluent
family and studied for a time at Stanford University, spent his entire life playing down-on-their-luck minstrel
stereotypes, a role "as foreign to him as an impersonation of Hamlet or Othello" (Stowe). Cultivated and reserved
off stage, Williams was forced to hew to degrading stereotypes to make a career. Nevertheless, he played the self-described
"shiftless darky" role exceptionally, and his 1903 musical In Dahomey, which costarred his acting partner George
Walker, was the first black performance to appear on Broadway. From 1910 to 1919 he joined the cast of the Follies, the only
black member of the famed New York revue. Williams was a gifted actor, and his popularity stemmed from his characters'
self-conscious exaggeration, timing, and wit, all elements that would become staples of American comedy. His trademark
jokes consisted in large part of "word play or lampooning usually solemn institutions such as church, marriage, or
funerals," subjects relatable to all races. His legacy has since been widely acknowledged, but by the time he died in
1922, at age forty-seven, Williams was still performing the same narrow roles that had defined his entire professional life.
Stowe, William M., Jr. "Damned Funny: The Tragedy of Bert Williams." The Journal of Popular Culture X.1
(1976): 5-13. Print.