Who was the black performer with the Follies

Who Was the Black Performer With the Follies?

Have you ever wondered about the unsung hero who broke barriers and made history with the Follies? Well, let me introduce you to a true pioneer of his time: Bert Williams. Born in the late 19th century, Williams defied the odds and rose to prominence in a world that was not yet ready to embrace his talent. His journey from the black vaudeville circuit to the glitz and glamour of Broadway is nothing short of extraordinary. But who was this black performer with the Follies, and what made him so remarkable? Get ready to uncover the captivating story of Bert Williams, a trailblazer who left an indelible mark on the world of entertainment.

Early Life and Career

Bert Williams, a renowned black performer, began his early life and career in the late 19th century, breaking barriers and paving the way for future generations of black artists in show business. His rise to fame was marked by numerous challenges faced by black performers during that time. Williams entered the entertainment industry during the evolution of vaudeville, a popular form of variety entertainment. Despite facing racial discrimination, Williams’ impact on the vaudeville circuit was significant. His unique performance style, characterized by slow delivery and slurred speech, captivated audiences and made him famous. Williams often portrayed a losing poker player, focusing on the problems of everyday life, particularly those faced by individuals who were down and out. His songs, like “(I Ain’t Got) Nobody,” had a touch of pathos that resonated with listeners. Williams’ contribution to black representation in entertainment cannot be understated. He broke down barriers by becoming the first black performer to work openly with white performers in a major Broadway venue, and his friendship with rising vaudeville star Eddie Cantor further showcased his impact. Williams’ legacy lives on as he paved the way for future generations of black artists in show business.

Breakthrough in Vaudeville

During his early career, Bert Williams made a significant breakthrough in the world of vaudeville, becoming the first black performer to openly work alongside white performers in a major Broadway venue. This integration in vaudeville was a groundbreaking moment in the entertainment industry and had a profound impact on future black performers. Williams faced numerous challenges due to racial discrimination, with many performers refusing to share a stage with him. However, he developed a long-standing friendship with rising vaudeville star Eddie Cantor, which proved to be significant in his career.

Williams’ breakthrough marked an important milestone in the evolution of black representation in show business. His success challenged stereotypes and provided inspiration for other black performers. Despite the prejudice he faced, Williams’s talent and charisma shone through, captivating audiences with his unique performance style. His pantomime skills and comedic timing made him famous in the vaudeville circuit.

Williams’ friendship with Cantor not only demonstrated the power of interracial collaboration but also helped pave the way for future opportunities for black performers. Their friendship showcased a model of unity and camaraderie, breaking down barriers and promoting inclusivity in the entertainment industry.

Unique Performance Style

Williams’ unique performance style captivated audiences with his slow and slurred delivery, showcasing his talent as a skilled monologist and storyteller. His impact on vaudeville was significant, as he brought a fresh and distinctive approach to comedic performances. Williams’ use of blackface, although controversial, was a common practice at the time in the entertainment industry. His subject matter in routines focused on the problems of everyday life, particularly those faced by the downtrodden. Through his performances, Williams shed light on social issues and challenges faced by marginalized communities.

Furthermore, Williams’ influence on later comedians cannot be overstated. His innovative style paved the way for future generations of performers. Comedians such as Red Skelton drew inspiration from Williams’ delivery and unique stage presence. Williams’ slow and deliberate delivery allowed for greater comedic timing and emphasized the nuances of his routines.

Additionally, Williams had a close relationship with Eddie Cantor, a rising star in vaudeville. The two performers often appeared together on stage, showcasing their chemistry and camaraderie. Cantor was a strong supporter of Williams and helped elevate his career in the predominantly white entertainment industry. Their partnership was a testament to the power of collaboration and friendship in overcoming racial barriers.

Film Career

Continuing his career in the entertainment industry, Bert Williams ventured into the world of film, showcasing his pantomime skills and poker game routine in several notable productions. Despite facing racism and discrimination in the film industry, Williams left a lasting impact on later comedians and challenged the prevailing blackface tradition.

In the films he appeared in, such as ‘A Natural Born Gambler’ in 1916, Williams captivated audiences with his talent for silent comedy and his mastery of pantomime. His poker game routine, filled with exaggerated facial expressions and physical gestures, became a signature act that showcased his comedic timing and versatility. Williams always performed in blackface, following the tradition of minstrel shows, which were deeply problematic and perpetuated racial stereotypes.

Despite the racist practices of the film industry at the time, Williams’ performances were influential to later comedians. His unique style of comedy and his ability to evoke laughter through physicality and expression paved the way for future generations of performers. Comedians like Red Skelton drew inspiration from Williams’ comedic techniques and incorporated them into their own acts.

It is important to acknowledge the racism and discrimination that Williams faced throughout his film career. The film industry during this time was heavily segregated, and opportunities for black performers were limited. Williams experienced prejudice, was often denied access to preferred seating in theaters, and faced constant fear and death threats. Despite these challenges, Williams persevered and continued to make significant contributions to the entertainment industry.

Racism and Discrimination

What were the challenges and obstacles that Bert Williams faced due to racism and discrimination as a black performer in the entertainment industry?

Bert Williams, as a black performer in the early 20th century, faced significant challenges and obstacles due to racism and discrimination in the entertainment industry. These challenges included:

  • Impact of segregation: Williams had to navigate a society that was deeply segregated, both in the North and South of the United States. This segregation meant that opportunities for black performers were limited, and they often faced discrimination in both professional and personal settings.
  • Challenging racial stereotypes: Williams had to contend with racial stereotypes that were prevalent at the time. Black performers were often expected to conform to these stereotypes, which limited their artistic expression and perpetuated harmful stereotypes about black people.
  • Limited opportunities: The entertainment industry had racial barriers that prevented black performers from accessing the same opportunities as their white counterparts. Williams faced difficulties in finding work and was often excluded from certain venues and productions due to racial discrimination.
  • Upholding racial discrimination: Despite his talent and success, Williams still faced racial discrimination and prejudice from both audiences and fellow performers. He was not even allowed to watch his own show from preferred seats in the audience, highlighting the pervasive racism of the time.


Bert Williams’ legacy as one of the greatest entertainers in American history is celebrated for his talent and impact on black performers in show business. His contributions to the recording industry, challenges faced, representation in show business, and influence on later comedians have left a lasting impact.

Williams made significant contributions to the recording industry, with around 80 recordings made from 1901 to 1922. His recordings with George Walker are considered historic, as they were the first recordings by black performers for a major recording company. Williams’ signature number, “Nobody,” remains a classic in American music.

Despite his immense talent, Williams faced many challenges due to racial discrimination. He was often subjected to racism and discrimination, both in the North and South of the United States. Despite his success, he was not even allowed to watch his own show from preferred seats in the audience. The color line in the entertainment industry limited opportunities for black performers.

Williams’ representation in show business was groundbreaking. He was the first black performer to work openly with white performers in a major Broadway venue, the Ziegfeld Follies. Many performers refused to share a stage with him due to racial prejudice, but Williams persevered and paved the way for future generations of black entertainers.

His influence on later comedians cannot be overstated. Williams’ unique performance style, with his slow and slurred delivery, influenced later comedians such as Red Skelton. His routine as a losing poker player and his focus on the problems of everyday life resonated with audiences and set a precedent for African American comedy.

Early Black Performers and Their Impact on Broadway

One important aspect of Bert Williams’ legacy is his role in paving the way for early black performers and their significant impact on Broadway. Black performers have made invaluable contributions to the evolution of Broadway, challenging stereotypes, addressing social issues, and promoting diversity and inclusivity. Here are some key points to consider:

  • Black performers’ contributions: Black artists have brought their unique talents and perspectives to Broadway, enriching its cultural landscape with their performances and stories. They have showcased their immense talent and showcased the power of representation.
  • Challenges and representation: Black performers faced numerous challenges, including racial discrimination and limited opportunities. However, their resilience and determination allowed them to break barriers and achieve success, providing representation for the Black community and inspiring future generations.
  • Social issues on Broadway: Black artists have used their platform to address important social issues, shedding light on topics such as racial inequality, discrimination, and the African-American experience. Their work has sparked conversations and promoted social awareness.
  • Evolution of Broadway: The presence of black performers on Broadway has played a crucial role in the evolution of the industry. Shows like Shuffle Along and Porgy and Bess set the template for featuring black performers and introducing syncopated rhythms to Broadway, paving the way for more diverse productions.

The contributions of early black performers have had a lasting impact on Broadway, shaping its cultural landscape and promoting diversity and inclusivity in the theatrical community. Their legacy continues to inspire and empower future generations of black performers, directors, and playwrights.

Influential Black Musicals on Broadway

Which influential Black musicals have made a lasting impact on Broadway? Pioneering shows such as Shuffle Along in 1921, Porgy and Bess in 1935, A Raisin in the Sun in 1959, Ain’t Supposed to Die A Natural Death in 1971, and The Color Purple in 2005 have all challenged stereotypes, provided representation for the Black community, and addressed important social issues. These shows have played a significant role in the evolution of Broadway and have paved the way for future generations of Black performers, directors, and playwrights.

Shuffle Along, a groundbreaking musical, set the template for shows featuring Black performers and syncopated rhythms. Porgy and Bess, although controversial at first, gained recognition through revivals and continues to be celebrated. A Raisin in the Sun, a pioneering drama, explored the Black family’s yearning for the American Dream. Ain’t Supposed to Die A Natural Death addressed the ills of ghetto life, while The Color Purple, based on the novel by Alice Walker, received critical acclaim and multiple Tony nominations.

Notable Black actors such as Paul Robeson, Sidney Poitier, Audra McDonald, Norm Lewis, and Cynthia Erivo have made their mark on Broadway, receiving critical acclaim and winning prestigious awards. Black directors and playwrights like Lloyd Richards, George C. Wolfe, August Wilson, Lynn Nottage, and Dominique Morisseau have also played a vital role in shaping the theatrical landscape.



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