Elizabeth Salaam 11 a.m., Feb. 26
"The Funniest Man I Ever Saw"
In The Scottsboro Boys, Haywood Patterson is condemned to the electric chair for a crime he didn't commit. In the Old Globe production, Clifton Duncan plays Patterson and sings "Nothin'" two ways: he blasts out angry lyrics, then pulls back and contorts himself in the racist stereotypes of the old minstrel shows. Then blasts again, then pulls back.
"Nothin'" — and this may be deliberate — recalls the legendary black comedian, Bert Williams, and his signature song, "Nobody."
- "I ain't never done nothin' to nobody,
- I ain't never got nothin' from nobody, no time.
- Until I get somethin' from somebody, some time,
- I will never do nothin' for nobody, no time."
Williams first sang it in 1905. Until he died, in 1922, audiences demanded he sing it during every performance.
- "When I was in that railroad wreck
- And thought I'd cashed in my last check,
- Who took that engine off my neck?
- Not a soul!"
The only way Williams could appear on a stage in those days was to subordinate his talent to minstrel show shuck and jive. He had to wear a wig of "kinky" hair, burnt cork blackface make-up, a frumpy suit, scuffed shoes two sizes too large, and white gloves. To complete the caricature, he added ungainly movements and deliberately slow speech.
He became a hit, then a headliner making $2000 a week. In an obit for the Chicago Examiner, Ashton Stevens said "Bert Williams is the Mark Twain of his color...His was kindly, infectious humor, humor that made humans of us all."
Some say there were times when he transcended his caricature. But Williams never thought so. He was just "doing piffle," he confessed, and never could "interpret the real Negro on stage."
"I'm just relegated," he told a friend, "I don't belong."
Although he became the reigning comedian of his day, "in his own eyes," writes Ann Charters, "he was a failure...he had struggled to perfect his great gifts but was expected to appear in blackface, and the role became as impossible to abandon as his own shadow."
In his last years, Williams suffered from chronic depression. He still appeared on stage, with the likes of Eddie Cantor, Lester Walton, Will Rogers, and W.C. Fields.
Fields, who became a friend, said, "Bert Williams was the funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever knew."