BERT WILLIAMS IS NOBODY is available for production by emailing bcpkid AT gmail.com.
Press to play the original recording of "Nobody" by Vaudeville star
The play begins in the late 1890s with Bert Williams meeting his future partner, the brash and cocky George Walker, on a San Francisco street. Walker hits upon the idea of “corking up”—patterning themselves after the white performers who use blackface and billing themselves as “A Couple of Real Coons.” The two work their way east, which takes them into the racist heart of the South where Williams first encounters the bigotry Walker, a Kansas native, has lived with his entire life. While Williams settles into his success befitting his calm, implacable demeanor, marrying his solid, longtime partner Lottie Thompson, Walker lives as fast and loose as the character he portrays onstage. Although he marries Ada Overton, a young, attractive up and coming star, he is frequently unfaithful, a situation that boils over on the night of the New York City race riot of 1900. Walker doesn’t heed Williams’ warnings about his personal life, and upbraids Williams for his lack of experience himself. The first act ends as we are told by Williams of Walker’s premature death of syphilis.
The second act begins with Williams in his new milieu, telling a story in blackface as a solo act for Zeigfeld’s Follies. Williams never identified himself with the black community that wanted him as their leader. Finding himself more isolated than ever, he is befriended by the cynical but loyal W.C. Fields. The Actors’ Strike of 1919 continues Williams’ downward spiral—although one of the most successful and well-known performers of his time, he is not told of the strike because he was never invited into the union, a fact that incenses Fields. David Belasco, the Broadway impresario, offers Williams a chance to do a dramatic role, and break free from the stereotype he had been playing for so many years. Faced with this opportunity, Williams cannot bring himself to grasp it. After his death he is left to wonder if he did anything to ennoble the character he portrayed, or did he just mock him?
Character Breakdown: (6M, 2F, 1 child)
Bert Williams (late 30s-40s, plays 20-45) A large, light-skinned black man of West Indian descent, reserved, dignified, and at times lacking confidence; in performance an excellent story-teller with superb comic timing
George Walker (late 20s, plays 20-30) Dashing, smooth, dark-skinned black man from Kansas; retains his rough edges and horse sense throughout his development; proudly outspoken, conceited; a great dancer
Lottie Thompson (30s) Substantial black woman, wise, level-headed, drawn to Williams’ reserved nature, but more similar in background to Walker
Ada Overton (20s) A young, refined black woman from an affluent Harlem family, talented, self-assured, tragically drawn to Walker’s brash persona
Jesse Shipp (late 30s-40s) Veteran Vaudevillian performer and writer, exacting, honest
W.C. Fields (late 30s-40s) Cynical, funny, cerebral, prone to bouts of “performing”
Texan/Barkeep (over 30) Dangerous racist
David Belasco (40s) The broadway impresario, a man keenly aware of his own ability to “make” a performer’s career