Sneak Peek–Bert Williams is nobody

Caricature of vaudevillian Bert Williams by Al Frueh

nobody has had a star-crossed history.  I worked on it for about a year, then had a staged reading of it down in Beacon with Passing the Torch Through the Arts that went very well.  I liked the cast, we had a space lined up in Kingston and we had just started the PR campaign…and I got sick.  So nobody was put on the shelf, where it has remained since.  I’m still sending it out, hoping it catches on with an African-American theater.  Bert Williams was a vaudeville performer, and the first crossover dark-skinned star in America. “Nobody” was his signature song. His story is as sad as it is triumphant, and I hope to get to tell it sometime soon. 

Bert Williams is nobody

by Brian C. Petti

PO Box 361

East Durham, NY 12423

(518) 239-6267

bcpkid AT gmail.com

Copyright 2009 © by Brian C. Petti

 ACT I

scene 1

The stage is bare, with the exception of a small chair and vanity table down left. A white gloved hand appears from the stage right wings. It timidly draws the curtain back a few inches, revealing the face of BERT WILLIAMS. He is in blackface in the minstrel tradition of the late 1800s, although he has coffee-colored skin himself. He appears as he did in his act: downtrodden, unsure, awkward—a poor soul. He slowly and with trepidation reveals himself to the audience and shuffles to center stage. Although he is a large man, he is wearing a suit with tails that is much too large for him, with a tie that is much too long and oversized shoes. The outfit is worn threadbare. After a moment of sizing up the audience and seemingly gathering his courage, WILLIAMS reaches deep into his jacket pocket and comes out with a small notebook. He makes a show of flipping through the pages, looking nervously at the audience from time to time to make them believe he is about to read and then flipping some more. Finally he finds what he has been looking for and begins to speak/sing…

NOBODY

Williams
When life seems full of clouds an’ rain

and I am filled with naught but pain,

who soothes my thumpin’ bumpin’ brain?

 (Looking at his notebook with surprise) Nobody . . . 

When winter comes with snow an’ sleet,

and me with hunger and cold feet,

who says “Ah, here’s two bits, go an’ eat!”

Nobody . . .

I ain’t never done nothin’ to nobody,

I ain’t never got nothin’ from nobody, no time!

And until I get somethin’ from somebody, sometime, 

I don’t intend to do nothin’ for nobody, no time!

When I try hard an’ scheme an’ plan,

to look as good as I can,

who says “Ah, look at that handsome man!”

Nobody . . .

When all day long things go amiss,

and I go home to find some bliss,

who hands to me a glowin’ kiss?

Nobody . . .

I ain’t never done nothin’ to nobody,

I ain’t never got nothin’ from nobody, no time!

And until I get somethin’ from somebody, sometime, 

I don’t intend to do nothin’ for nobody, no time!

 Nobody, no time!

WILLIAMS puts the notebook away and straightens his posture. His face and bearing change and in the space of a moment he is no longer the character from his act—not timid but proud, not downtrodden but sad, not stumbling but eloquent. He addresses himself directly to the audience in a slight West Indian accent.

 After I had achieved some degree of notoriety in my profession, I found myself being asked a particular question: did I wish I had been born a white man. My answer was always an emphatic “No”. How do I know what I would have been were I born white? I could have been a miner, burrowing away in coal dust, never knowing a bright, sunny day or a moment of good health for $8 a day. I could’ve been a streetcar

Williams (con’t)
conductor, on my feet from morning to night, traveling the same path I traveled the day before for $12 a week. Many a white man is less fortunate or less equipped than I am. Yet the question was asked to a man of some fortune, a man of some achievement. A man who starred in the Ziegfeld Follies.

To them I was none of those things. I was a man of color. Now, I have never found anything inherently dishonorable about being a Negro. But I have found it to be…inconvenient. In America.

Act I

scene 2

 A vaudevillian style scene-indicating sign is illuminated downstage left. It reads: “Williams Meets Walker, San Francisco, 1893”. Each subsequent scene in the play will have a similar sign.

 Market Street in San Francisco outside a minstrel theater. GEORGE WALKER, a lean, dark-skinned man of twenty, leans against the wall. Even in repose there is a sense of energy surrounding him, as if at any moment he were about to perform. He is brash, fast-talking and exuding confidence. WALKER is dressed as well as a poor performer can be—his appearance is always of utmost importance to him.

 WILLIAMS wanders into the scene stage right, looking from his notebook to the surrounding theater facades. He is considerably less well-dressed than WALKER, a pattern that will continue as their fortunes improve. WILLIAMS is nineteen, but holds himself with a maturity and regalness that belies his age and position. He speaks with a slight West Indian accent, in contrast to WALKER’S Kansas vernacular.

 Williams

 Excuse me, I was told I might find a man named Lester at this theater.

Walker

Let me see that…(looking at the notebook) Yeah, I know that hack. What you barking up his tree for?

Williams

I was told he could sing and dance.

Walker

Were you now? And who told you, a blind, deaf man?

Williams

Listen son; is the man here or not?

Walker 

Who you calling “son”? How old are you? 

Williams

Nineteen.

Walker

 Ha! I’m twenty. And no, “son,” he ain’t here. If he was you’d see a lot more cats around. Dey respond to his voice when dey in heat.

Williams 

Thank you and good day.

WILLIAMS turns to go back where he came from, but WALKER stops him.

Walker

 Hold on, hold on big fella. You don’t talk like no Negro I ever heard. No “yassurs,” no “y’alls”. Where you from anyway?

Williams

Antigua.

Walker

I’m from Kansas myself. Danced all the way from Lawrence to San Francisco and I ain’t gonna stop ‘till Broad-way! Antigua, huh? Where’s that, in the Carolinas?

Williams

The West Indies.
Walker

What language do they speak there?

Williams

English. (about to turn away again) Cheers.
Walker

You ain’t no big talker, are you?

Williams

I talk when I have something to say—you should try it some time.

Walker

Oho, the big man got jokes. You should save some of those for your act.

Williams

How do you know I’m in an act?

Walker

You’re at a theater looking for a man who can sing and dance. What for, to go play water polo?

Williams

Excuse me.

WILLIAMS turns to leave again, but WALKER steps in his path. 

Walker 

Whoa now, you just gonna up and leave without finding what you came here for?

Williams 

(pointing at his notebook) You know where this man is?

Walker
 Would you forget about that talentless Bon Bon? You came here for a man who could sing, and that’s me. And you came here for a man who could dance, and that is definitely me. You got the wrong name, but you found what you were looking for. George Walker.

WALKER takes off his cap and extends his hand with a flourish. WILLIAMS considers, then grudgingly takes his hand.

 Williams

 Bert Williams.

Walker

You can call me George.

Williams

You can call me Bert Williams. Who do you work with?

Walker

Oh, I’ve been around this block. There ain’t a darkey revue or minstrel act I haven’t been in at one time or another.

Williams

So why are you looking for a job?

Walker

I wasn’t looking for a job, Bert Williams. A job done found me!

Williams

All right, bud. I’m going to walk into this theater right here and I’m going to ask the producer to tell me everything he knows about Mr. George Walker. What kind of tale is he going to tell me, do you suppose? 

Walker 

I’ll tell you exactly what he’s gonna say. He’s gonna tell you George Walker is the best dancer this stage has ever seen. He’s gonna say that man has more talent in his little finger than the rest of his chorus combined.

WILLIAMS moves to enter the theater, but is stopped by WALKER saying…

Then he’s gonna tell you not to take me on if you know what’s good for you.

Williams

How come?

Walker

(with fierce sincerity) ‘Cause I get what’s mine. ‘Cause whatever they convince themselves I’m worth, I tell them to double it if they want to keep me. ‘Cause I got plans, Bert Williams, plans to make a name for myself. Plans to share my light with the world. And no producer man in no podunk, broke-down theater in no San Francisco is going to stop me. That’s why.

Williams

(beat) You can call me Bert.

WALKER straightens WILLIAMS’ tie.

Walker

I think I like “Bert Williams” better.

BLACKOUT

Advertisements
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: