James T. Lane's Amos Hart in Chicago Is a Tribute to Black Entertainer Bert Williams | Playbill

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Special Features James T. Lane's Amos Hart in Chicago Is a Tribute to Black Entertainer Bert Williams

As the first Black actor to play the role on Broadway, Lane tells us how his performance (with those white gloves) is uniquely informed by the vaudeville star.

James T. Lane Michaelah Reynolds

James T. Lane is a rare bird when it comes to Broadway’s Chicago. It’s not unusual for alums to return to the long-running revival, but they tend to stick to the same roles. Lane, on the other hand, is currently back starring as maligned mechanic husband Amos just a few months after his stint as silver-tongued lawyer Billy Flynn.

“It’s a trip,” he told us just days after his surprise return to the production (a case of COVID led to Lane’s start date moving up by almost a week). “I have to almost ignore what Billy is doing because those lines are still really fresh in my head.”

It’s also historic. Lane is one of just two performers in the production’s history to play both male-presenting principal roles, placing him alongside Christopher Fitzgerald. “It’s a wonderful club to be in.”

But there’s something about Lane’s casting that stands alone and remains unmatched. He may be one of two to play both roles, but he’s the one and only Black actor to join that club. And while he stands alongside several former Billys (including Cuba Gooding, Jr., Colman Domingo, Brandon Victor Dixon, James Monroe Iglehart, Usher, Obba Babatunde, Hinton Battle, Chuck Cooper, Wayne Brady, Taye Diggs, and Norm Lewis, among others), Lane stands alone when it comes to Amos. He is the only Black actor to play the role full-time at all on Broadway, and has been since he first did the part in 2009.

James T. Lane in Chicago Jeremy Daniel

That alone is worth celebrating and marking, but it’s especially apt when it comes to the character of Amos Hart. Chicago, originally subtitled “A Musical Vaudeville,” unfolds as a series of vaudeville acts. When John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Bob Fosse set out to decide how these characters could become vaudeville acts, in many cases they turned to real historical figures. Matron “Mama” Morton is very closely modeled on Sophie Tucker, Roxie on Helen Morgan, Velma on Texas Guinan, and Billy Flynn on Ted Lewis

Amos, on the other hand, is heavily inspired by the once world-famous, but now largely forgotten, Black entertainer Bert Williams.

The connection brings extra meaning to Lane’s performance, he says. “What a moment that I get to live through as an artist, as a person taking up space in a new way in these past few years, that I get the honor of embodying an iconic character that was created by an African American vaudeville star.”

Over a three-decade career, Williams defied bigotry and racial inequality to become one of the highest-paid entertainers in the world. He was far and away the most successful Black entertainer of his day. He notably joined the usually all-white Ziegfeld Follies for its 1910 iteration, and is thought to be the first Black actor to play a leading role on screen, in 1913’s unfortunately titled Darktown Jubilee.

But to focus on Williams’ talents and fame as an entertainer is to miss what most makes him an interesting figure. In the early 20th century, many Black performers were relegated to performing cruel and ridiculous stereotypes—including the use of blackface makeup—invented by white people, and primarily for white audiences. Williams performed in blackface too—but he used it subversively to critique those stereotypes. Unlike the vast majority of his contemporaries, Williams refused to make Black people the butt of his jokes, choosing instead to find laughs in situations that anyone could relate to. Williams’ blackface makeup shined a spotlight on the absurdity and dehumanization of the performance practice. He forced his audiences to think about what the act of blackface actually is and why they enjoy it.

Bert Williams NYPL Digital Archives/ Lumiere (N.Y.)

You can find one of the best examples of that in William’s signature and career-defining song “Nobody,” which he wrote with lyricist Alex Rogers in 1905 for the Broadway musical Abyssinia. He would perform the melancholy tune with his trademark speak-sing style and dry wit, showing the plight of Black men at the time. 

"When winter comes with snow and sleet
And me with hunger and cold feet
Who says, ‘Here’s two bits, go and eat’?

If you’re familiar with the songs of Chicago, you’d be excused if you thought those were extra lyrics to “Mr. Cellophane.”

And that’s not by accident. Just as Williams was the model for Amos, “Nobody” became the model for Amos’ tragic anthem, where the character sings of his own injustice at the hands of Roxie and Billy. And as staged by director Walter Bobbie and choreographer Ann Reinking, Amos starts the song purposefully donning white gloves, a nod to "Nobody" and the character’s connection to minstrelsy.

Though Lane briefly played Amos in 2009, it wasn’t until this time around that he was even fully aware of the role's background. Lane says learning that history gave him new purpose after initially wondering why he, as a triple threat performer, had suddenly found himself back in this wallflower-esque role.

“I’m used to jumping off and twirling and doing splits, or being the song-and-dance man,” says Lane, who has spent most of his time on Broadway in dance-heavy shows like A Chorus Line and Kiss Me, Kate. “That’s what I’m known for. What is the lesson in Amos? At first, I thought the lesson was stillness. Let’s really put on this kind of character of stillness and altruism that’s Amos’s heart. But for the culture, the lesson is Mr. Bert Williams.” 

Lane admit he had been feeling slightly out of place, but when he discovered who Williams was and researched his legacy, suddenly he settled into the performance with a new sense of comfort and purpose. “This is exactly where I’m supposed to be. This culturally was created with me in mind, with what I have inside of me in mind.”

Lane says it also makes the character, and particularly the song “Mr. Cellophane,” mean more and adds nuance to his take on the role. “As an African American man, not being seen or not feeling like I am a part of society, that all informs my relationship with Roxie. It informs my relationship in how I deal with Billy Flynn,” says Lane. His Amos isn’t just adorably pathetic. He represents one more indictment on society’s worst impulses, in a musical that was built to lampoon exactly that. Chicago always satirizes the thirst for fame and the media complex built around it. Now it more clearly shows the victims of that, too. People like Amos. 

“It’s profound,” says Lane. “It makes it deeper. It puts the emphasis not on the performance necessarily, but on how you’re feeling about who you are. If theatre isn’t doing that, then it’s not doing its job.”

But back to those minstrel gloves. 

Bringing back any trappings from the world of minstrelsy can be a loaded moment for a performer, and especially so for an artist of color. It’s something Lane has engaged with before on a larger level while in another Kander and Ebb musical, The Scottsboro Boys. Like Chicago, that musical uses an archaic and artifice-filled performance style as a satirical framing storytelling device, here telling the true story of nine young Black men who were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train in Scottsboro, Alabama in 1930. To tell that tale, Kander and Ebb, along with book writer David Thompson, reached back further than vaudeville to present the musical as a minstrel show. Most of the performance had the cast in regular period clothes, but the finale underlined the characters’ very real dehumanization by having them suddenly appear on stage in the traditional minstrel outfit: tuxedo, white gloves, and full blackface makeup, which they ultimately scrub off onstage in protest. To say the scene was incendiary is a monumental understatement. Much of the musical’s brief Broadway run in 2010 was accompanied by protests outside the theatre.

The Broadway company of The Scottsboro Boys Paul Kolnik

But Lane says it was necessary—and sadly, as timely now as it was then. “Some of the rhetoric that is coming out of the far right’s mouth, dehumanizing people—that’s what blackface is to me,” he says. “You put them all in blackface because they all look alike.”

And though revisiting that painful history can be tricky, Lane says that it’s also a way to honor legacy. In the case of Chicago and Bert Williams, it celebrates the trailblazer that helped made Lane’s life and career today possible.

“Bert Williams paved the way so I can stand center stage and be the Black gay man continuing the lineage of that,” says Lane. “Putting on the glove is about the entertainer. It’s paying tribute, that I can put on those gloves with knowing who I am. It’s a history lesson for me, particularly walking around in this skin. It’s about honoring myself as an artist standing on the shoulders of folks like Bert Williams.”

There is much work left to do for us to right the wrongs of inequity, but Lane can’t help but reflect how different it is now compares to the era of Bert Williams—and how much the legendary performer was a part of making that so.

“At the end of the night, I leave the stage door, I go home, I pet my cats, I kiss my partner. I am living who I am fully,” he says. “That’s how I take this. I’m free to do all of the things while I still pay homage to Bert and his world.”

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