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Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies

Performance, Race, and Sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance

James F. Wilson

Publication Year: 2010

James F. Wilson uncovers fascinating new material on the Harlem Renaissance, shedding light on the oft-forgotten gay and lesbian contributions to the era's creativity and Civil Rights. Extremely well researched, compellingly written, and highly informative. ---David Krasner, author of A Beautiful Pageant: African American Theatre, Drama, and Performance in the Harlem Renaissance, 1910-1927 Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies shines the spotlight on historically neglected plays and performances that challenged early twentieth-century notions of the stratification of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation. On Broadway stages, in Harlem nightclubs and dance halls, and within private homes sponsoring rent parties, African American performers of the 1920s and early 1930s teased the limits of white middle-class morality. Blues-singing lesbians, popularly known as "bulldaggers," performed bawdy songs; cross-dressing men vied for the top prizes in lavish drag balls; and black and white women flaunted their sexuality in scandalous melodramas and musical revues. Race leaders, preachers, and theater critics spoke out against these performances that threatened to undermine social and political progress, but to no avail: mainstream audiences could not get enough of the riotous entertainment. Many of the plays and performances explored here, central to the cultural debates of their time, had been previously overlooked by theater historians. Among the performances discussed are David Belasco's controversial production of Edward Sheldon and Charles MacArthur's Lulu Belle (1926), with its raucous, libidinous view of Harlem. The title character, as performed by a white woman in blackface, became a symbol of defiance for the gay subculture and was simultaneously held up as a symbol of supposedly immoral black women. African Americans Florence Mills and Ethel Waters, two of the most famous performers of the 1920s, countered the Lulu Belle stereotype in written statements and through parody, thereby reflecting the powerful effect this fictional character had on the popular imagination. Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies is based on historical archival research including readings of eyewitness accounts, newspaper reports, songs, and playscripts. Employing a cultural studies framework that incorporates queer and critical race theory, it argues against the widely held belief that the stereotypical forms of black, lesbian, and gay show business of the 1920s prohibited the emergence of distinctive new voices. Specialists in American studies, performance studies, African American studies, and gay and lesbian studies will find the book appealing, as will general readers interested in the vivid personalities and performances of the singers and actors introduced in the book. James F. Wilson is Professor of English and Theatre at LaGuardia Community College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Series: Triangulations: Lesbian/Gay/Queer Theate


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p. xi

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pp. vii-ix

This book, over ten years in the making, would not have been possible without the guidance, support, and inspiration of some truly remarkable individuals. I am indebted to them all, and I wish I had the space to pay more than just passing tribute in these introductory pages....

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Introduction: “It’s Getting Dark on Old Broadway”

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pp. 1-10

In October 1923, Florence Mills, one of the most famous African American performers of the decade, joined the cast of the Greenwich Village Follies, which was playing at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City. Mills had previously established herself as a performer of considerable talent when shestepped into the hit musical Shuffle Along (1921), and her return to Broadway...

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1. “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer”: Parties, Performances, and Privacy in the “Other” Harlem Renaissance(s)

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pp. 11-42

In The Big Sea, Langston Hughes famously wrote, “The ordinary Negroes hadn’t heard of the Negro Renaissance. And if they had, it hadn’t raised their wages any.”1 Hughes referred, of course, to the “high” literary renaissance of the1920s that included writers such as Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and NellaLarson. As part of this “Negro Renaissance,” he was also most likely referring to...

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2. “Harlem on My Mind”: New York’s Black Belt on the Great White Way

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pp. 43-78

In March 1926, Anita Handy edited a new magazine called A Guide to Harlem and Its Amusements, in which she planned to provide tips for touring Harlem’s most popular attractions. When her inspiration was denounced in the black press for focusing only on the neighborhood’s lurid side, she responded that she only intended to satisfy the curiosity of those who had recently seen David...

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3. “That’s the Kind of Gal I Am”: Drag Balls, “Sexual Perversion,” and David Belasco’s Lulu Belle

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pp. 79-111

In March 1928, Variety reported a rather shocking situation: New York’s established homosexual community was getting so large that it could no longer accept any new members. Those refused entry into this “queer elite” naturally retaliated and waged out-and-out insurrection. The article, entitled “Battle On Among Broadway Elite of the ‘Third Sex,’” begins: “New York’s sex abnormal...

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4. “Hottentot Potentates”: The Potent and Hot Performances of Florence Mills and Ethel Waters

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pp. 112-153

Throughout the 1920s, Lulu Belle proved to be a remarkably durable and malleable persona. The darling of the gay subculture, which embraced her outrageousness and rebelliousness, she was also associated with the most prominent African American performers of the era. Almost immediately after Lulu Belle opened on Broadway, rumors began to circulate that the fictional title character...

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5. “In My Well of Loneliness”: Gladys Bentley’s Bulldykin’ Blues

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pp. 154-191

With the enforcement of the Wales Padlock Law and stricter censorship of Broadway plays, musicals, and revues, lesbians and gay men in mainstream theater audiences had to content themselves with sly allusions and coded innuendo. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Broadway performers like Ethel Waters teased the limits of decency with double meanings...

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Conclusion: “You’ve Seen Harlem at Its Best”

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pp. 192-195

The Great Depression brought an unceremonious finale to the entertainment of the Harlem Renaissance. The neighborhood disintegrated further into poverty and destitution as New York’s upper crust lost money or turned to new venues for entertainment. The Lafayette Theatre, Harlem Opera House, and many of the nightclubs that flourished in the 1920s went bankrupt or closed by...


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pp. 197-230


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pp. 231-248


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pp. 249-260

E-ISBN-13: 9780472026968
E-ISBN-10: 0472026968
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472034895
Print-ISBN-10: 0472034898

Page Count: 296
Illustrations: 12 B&W photographs
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Triangulations: Lesbian/Gay/Queer Theate
See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 794700528
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • Harlem (New York, N.Y.) -- Intellectual life -- 20th century.
  • Theater -- New York (State) -- New York -- History -- 20th century.
  • African Americans in literature.
  • Race in literature -- Congresses.
  • Sex in the theater.
  • African Americans in the performing arts -- New York (State) -- New York -- History -- 20th century.
  • Harlem Renaissance.
  • African Americans -- New York (State) -- New York -- Intellectual life.
  • American drama -- African American authors -- History and criticism.
  • American drama -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
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