It’s Feb. 25, 1922 — the last night in the life of celebrated Black entertainer Bert Williams. In a break between performances, Williams regales his longtime assistant with songs and stories, and finds himself confronting his own legacy of a career built on the exploitation of Negro stereotypes.
And on Feb. 25, “Nobody, No Time,“ a play written and directed by Carlyle Brown, will be presented at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre as part of the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s PTC@Play two-week festival of new work.
Based on the life of Williams, one of the most popular vaudeville performers, as well as the first African-American lead on a Broadway stage, Brown explains his subject matter and his play: “Williams was born in the West Indies and moved to New York City as a boy, and then out to Riverside, Cal. Eventually, he chased his passions in theater and became very successful. And although he was not really an American Negro, he made a lot of money representing, some say even exploiting, African-American stereotypes.”
In fact, according to Brown, Williams was a key figure in the development of African-American entertainment. In an age when racial inequality and stereotyping were commonplace, Williams did much to push back racial barriers during his career. Fellow vaudevillian W.C. Fields, who appeared in productions with Williams, once described him as “the funniest man I ever saw – and the saddest man I ever knew.”
Brown, a writer/performer and director of Carlyle Brown & Co. based in Minneapolis, is the recipient of playwriting fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, McKnight Foundation, Pew Charitable Trust and others. He has been a teacher of expository writing at New York University, African-American literature at the University of Minnesota, African-American theater and dramatic literature at Carlton College, and much more.
Additionally, he is the 2006 recipient of the Black Theatre Network’s Winona Lee Fletcher Award for outstanding achievement and artistic excellence, a 2008 Guggenheim Fellow, a 2010 recipient of the Otto Rene Castillo Award for Political Theatre, and the 2010 United States Artists Friends Fellowship.
“My play is a work of fiction, but the story of the American Negro, and how the stereotypes surrounding them grew and, to some extent, still exist today, is very real,” Brown said. “And the African-American writing their own stories is a very new thing. Our stories, our points of view, are censored and then interpreted. If you have an African-American with a divergent point of view, it’s the white culture that says it is a legitimate point of view or it s not.”
Brown says his own interest in play writing was developed after a school trip to see “A Raisin in the Sun,” a production, he insists, that affected him and his classmates. “That play was a powerful experience, but I had no idea then that’s the route I’d be taking years later. But soon that powerful experience began to take shape.”
Brown said he first thought of becoming a novelist, but later, taking classes to learn how to write better dialogue, discovered theater began to interest him more and more. “Writing plays seem to me an art form that was good at creating discourse, and that the whole idea in theater was that is was representational and a good platform for me. As a young boy I was politically active, so writing plays seems a good way for me to express things I really wanted to talk about.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 985-0420.