Egbert Austin Williams better known as Bert, was an African American performer during the late 19th and early 20th century. He was born in Nassau, Bahamas on November 12, 1874. He was the child of Frederick, who was a sailor and his mother Julia. When Williams was 11 he and his family moved to Riverside in southern California. While in Nassau, Williams encountered very little racism, southern California however was a much different story which troubled him deeply throughout his lustrous career. Although he faced racism throughout his career he still was extremely successful. By the time he died in March of 1922, he had broken down numerous racial doors that has had an everlasting impact on Broadway. He became a legend as a comedian, songwriter, singer, and dancer in American Musical Theater.
Bert Williams moved to San Francisco to attend college at the University of San Francisco in 1892. While in school Williams would write songs, and do impressions at local venues to earn some extra money. He met a man named George Walker, a fellow black artist, who was a young and talented performer. These two decided to put an act together, and to tell one’s story is to tell the others as well. Williams and Walker called themselves for a time, “The Two Real Coons”. They “worked in the minstrel tradition, originally created by Whites wearing blackface as a vehicle for demeaning humor aimed at African Americans” (BHS). Williams was able to turn this around however as he “avoided the racial stereotype as he transformed the sorrow of his race into the stuff of laughter” (Stempel 92). He would also find a way to tell a tale all races could share and relate to.
That was just the start for Williams and Walker. Their act which developed from minstrel stereotypes was, “Walker; the flamboyant ‘dandy’ and glib con artist; Williams, the dim ‘darky’ bemused by his perpetual hard luck” (Stempel 88). This made them the most popular black comedians in vaudeville. By 1896 they were touring the east coast and as Stempel puts it their act was, “cakewalk dancers…that pitted Walker’s athleticism against Williams’s eccentricities” This earned them rave reviews by the famous composer Victor Herbert. They were then recruited by composer Will Cook, who was also African American, to join his play Clorindy.
After they finished with Clorindy, they formed their own touring company, which they used to produce all black shows which they wrote and co-stared in. The William and Walker Company which lasted from 1899 to 1909, created three important hit productions: In Dahomey (1903), Abyssinia (1906), and Bandanna Land (1908). In Dahomey, directed by Will Cook, opened on February 18, 1903, would proved to be the most successful of the three. The show was about trying to colonize Africa and a couple black, shady businessmen in Boston used the less fortunate of their own race to do so. They must find an heirloom to help fund the plan so they hire two detectives who are played by Walker a...