The "coon musical" was a popular ragtime feature of turn-of-the century American theater. Black performers had to don blackface ("corking up," it was called) in order to make a living on stage.
The greatest of the black vaudevillians, an artist who turned the image of the shuffling darkie into a poignant personal trademark, was Bert Williams--the legendary comedian whom W. C. Fields called "the funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever met."
This slice of Americana, in a captivating show called "Williams & Walker," is the best-kept theatrical secret in town if you're not black. It's playing at the Inner City Cultural Center, which few white theatergoers ever attend.
"Williams & Walker" unfolds like a silken kerchief under the top hats of Carle E. Atwater as the tragic but enduring Williams character and Kim Sullivan as the more accommodating song-and-dance partner George Walker.
The production, on national tour under the auspices of the National Black Touring Circuit, is an artful, entrancing, quietly revealing patch of a musical that unveiled at New York's New Federal Theater a year ago under the aegis of producer Woodie King Jr.
Director Shauneille Perry and playwright Vincent D. Smith hand us the experience of attending a minstrel show in a Jim Crow America, the high-stepping cakewalks, the tambourines and banjos.
There's Scott Joplin at the piano (pianist John McCallan, teamed on stage with percussionist Fritz Wise). The year is 1910 and we're in Williams' Ziegfeld Follies cubicle of a dressing room. He is cut off from fellow white cast members, and he slowly daubs his face with blackface.
In a marvelous performance, actor Atwater shuffles out front to face his house and recall his life with Walker. Atwater's baleful eyes, bent gait and flapping white-gloved hand summarize a culture that legit producers turned into ragtime fun. At the same time, as this production unobtrusively earmarks, black actors had to cork up or find other work. Williams, a classically trained actor whose dream was to do Shakespeare, rebels--but not entirely.
Performances at 1308 S. New Hampshire Ave. Thursday through Sunday, 8 p.m., Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. (213) 387-1161. The run has been extended to May 17.