Caryl Phillips begins Dancing in the Dark, his eighth novel, with a hypnotic stroll through the shadows of Harlem. “If you walk down Seventh Avenue today he is a man who never existed,” he whispers. Slowly, a figure comes to life: Bert Williams, the Caribbean-born vaudeville performer who at the beginning of the last century was one of the country’s most popular entertainers. But it came at a price: A serious and intensely private man, the elegant, light-skinned Williams didn’t find success until he applied burnt cork to his face to play the role of a “shuffling, dull-witted, clumsy, watermelon-eating Negro of questionable intelligence.”

It’s a sad, remarkable transformation, and one that Phillips teases out into a taut psychological study rich with the themes that have occupied him for over two decades. As he’s done so powerfully in novels such as Crossing the River and A Distant Shore, Phillips wrestles with questions of race, identity, migration, and the psychic toll of history. For Williams, the journey that took him from the Bahamas to brothel stages and ultimately Broadway had a gradual, disquieting effect. Indeed, the more he wore the blackface mask, the more poignantly he became estranged from himself. “Who was this fellow?” he asks, searching the mirror. “Sambo? Coon? Nigger?” For his performing partner, George Walker, who’s fondness for fast times and white women clashed with his own growing race consciousness, the end was even more jarring. “Bert, a man can kill himself trying to please white folks,” Walker realizes too late. The book’s final world—on Williams, Walker, and countless others after them—is delivered by Phillips in a whisper again: “know that at the darkest point of the night, when no eyes are upon them, these people’s souls will be heavy …”