(Michael Feingold’s article appeared on Theatermania, 10/31.)
A rediscovered film at MoMA prompts reflections on a great artist's extraordinary career.
When Bert Williams and his partner, George Walker, began to create some of the first musicals written and performed entirely by African-Americans (though customarily with a white producer as enabler), the roles they performed onstage gradually evolved away from the era's familiar minstrel-show conventions toward a more universal brand of comedy. Walker — trim, wiry, and nattily dressed — was the suave sharpie whose schemes, virtually guaranteed to collapse, would invariably do so directly on the head of his sidekick, Williams' slow-moving, slow-thinking, chronically suspicious bumpkin, tricked out with character names like Shylock Homestead or Skunkton Bowser. The pairing was classic: History bulges with examples of it, from ancient Greek comedy down to the Hope & Crosby of the Road movies.