Quill Theatre pays tribute to African American vaudeville pioneer Bert Williams in ‘The Top of Bravery’
When you ask someone about Bert Williams, many people are going to give you a blank look.
Even plenty of theatre folks may scrunch up their nose in confusion at the question. And, why wouldn’t they? Vaudeville, and particularly minstrelsy, are relics of a bygone age that are rarely discussed as part of the performing arts.
The inherent racism of minstrel shows and their considerable popularity at the time is hardly polite dinner discussion, particularly in an age where the discomfort of discussing America’s history far outweighs the important lessons to be learned and the myriad of mold-breaking individuals who faced off against those very barriers.
Williams was a Vaudeville genius and legendary comedian. He was the best-selling Black recording artist before 1920 and was the first Black American to step onto the Broadway stage. He was also the first Black man to perform as part of Ziegfeld’s Follies, which caused such a scandal that a Black man would perform alongside White women that, when Follies was traveling through Richmond, the show was cancelled.
Quill Theatre is aiming to pay tribute to Williams’ legacy and and tell his story right with their upcoming production, “The Top of Bravery”.
The production started off as a reading for part of Quill’s 2015-2016 Historical Reading Series and evolved into a four-person production with music, comedy, and dancing.
Jeremy V. Morris, the writer of the show and the actor playing Bert Williams, refers to himself as a cultural custodian and admits that he’s a writer first that fell into theatre by chance.
“It kind of was a chance happening,” he said. “Being approached with a very specific opportunity and me already kind of being in that world of Bert Williams and minstrelsy.”
Morris was one of the performers in “uncle tom: deconstructed,” the minstrel show that was the brainchild of “The Top of Bravery’s” director, Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates.
“Those people had to endure performing under very restrictive and difficult circumstances,” Morris said. “Being able to tell the story this way is the path that Bert Williams set us all on. Bringing it all back is kind of poetic.”
Dr. Pettiford-Wates has long examined race and its intersection with history through her art. “The Top of Bravery” is the latest collaboration that explored the forgotten pieces of American entertainment history.
“I love bringing new an untold stories to the stage,” she said. “I love history and I love dramatizing it.”
Dr. Pettiford-Wates admitted that she has a contentious relationship with history and particularly how it was taught. Bringing Williams’ story to the stage is feat long overdue in her mind.
“This play that we’re doing is also going to challenge people in that their is a perception of Bert Williams the entertainer that doesn’t embrace Bert Williams the activist artist,” she said. “Bert Williams the man who stood up in the face of injustice and inequality and actually did speak to it in the context of his work.”
Katrinah Carol Lewis, Keydron Dunn, and Jasmine Eileen Coles are all veterans of the Richmond theatre scene. They play the title characters but also a myriad of supporting characters, even up to fifteen roles. The ensemble has become very close during the production, due to the size of the show and the subject matter.
“They appreciate when we come together at night to make art,” said Erica Hughes, production manager and dialect coach. “So you can feel everyone’s passion for it and how much they appreciate it.”
Dunn, who previously performed in North Carolina before making his way to Richmond, plays George Walker, Bert Williams’ partner and the straight man to Williams’ buffoon.
“He is a fighter, and he wants everything that the opposition had,” Dunn said rto Walker. “We all work for the same dollar. We all work for the same places, but we’re not given the respect.”
“Some folks are not going to sit down and take it,” he said. “They’re gonna wanna challenge. And, when you come up to that challenge, you should rise to the occasion too.”
Lewis, who has also played the iconic entertainer Billie Holiday in TheatreLab’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grille,” plays the actress and entertainer Lottie Thompson Williams, Bert Williams’ wife and costar in many productions.
“She was a performer during a time when it was very difficult to be a Black woman performer,” Lewis said.
As Ada Overton Walker, Coles hopes to bring to light the overlooked achievements of these icons and to use the stage to honor them fully.
“I love highlighting and honoring this time,” she said. “Many people who I talked to about this production didn’t know her at all… She was so ahead of her time.”
So much of Bert Williams’ story and the story of his companions have been lost to time, and the barriers that they faced glossed over and forgotten. The cast and crew of “The Top of Bravery” strive to entertain, but also want to teach.
“I would like [the audience] to not even realize that they’re getting a history lesson and a lesson in social justice,” said Erica Hughes. “But to then walk away and unpack all the layers of storytelling.”
When asked if Williams and Walker would enjoy the show, Dunn let out a laugh.
“Oh, I think they’d be ecstatic!” he said. “They’ll be like, ‘do you know y’all are letting them in on the joke?’ But, that’s fine, keep going!”
“The Top of Bravery”, which was produced in partnership with the African American Repertory Theatre of Virginia, opens this Friday, Jan. 13 at Quill Theatre and runs through Feb. 5. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the Box Office at (804) 340-0115.
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