- Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies: Performance, Race, and Sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance
On any given Saturday night in the early 1920s, frequenters of Harlem’s rent-party circuit might find jazz pianist and composer Thomas “Fats” Waller perfecting his skills as an entertainer at one of the many private residences hosting fêtes for profit. As James Wilson documents in his carefully researched and cogently written Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies: Performance, Race, and Sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance, for Waller and many of the revelers who attended them, Harlem’s rent parties proved to be significant sites of rehearsal: notably, for transgressing and subverting the boundaries of race and class, as well as gender and sexuality. Indeed, in this study, Wilson turns to the putative Harlem Renaissance to investigate the ways that “depictions of blackness and whiteness, male and female, homosexual and heterosexual, highbrow and lowbrow merged and coalesced in the theater and performances of the 1920s and 1930s” (3). It is, in part, a project of recuperation that focuses on plays—including Edward Sheldon and Charles MacArthur’s Lulu Belle (1926) and Wallace Thurman and William Jourdan Rapp’s Harlem (1929)—and figures—such as the inimitable performer Gladys Bentley—that have previously received little critical attention. Effortlessly blending historical, cultural, and performance analyses with biographical information, Wilson also offers fresh insights into more notable performers and events like Florence Mills, Ethel Waters, and the Hamilton Lodge’s and Rockland Palace’s drag balls. Across his many astute close readings, Wilson stakes a significant claim for expanding the discourses on race, class, gender, sexuality, and, crucially, performance within Harlem Renaissance studies. [End Page 619]
Wilson shuttles between theatrical and extra-theatrical spaces throughout the book. Chapter 2, for example, moves from Harlem’s rent, or “whist,” parties, which Wilson discusses at length in chapter 1, to their theatrical representation in Thurman and Rapp’s melodrama. He argues that, in addition to offering a social outlet for attendees—primarily members of the black working class—and evidencing Harlem’s communal spirit, rent parties provided a venue for the expression of same-sex desire and alternative performances of gender. Not surprisingly, these affairs did not escape the anthropologizing and exoticizing gaze of those interested in the “Harlem vogue,” which was fueled, in part, by the popularity of Carl Van Vechten’s controversial 1926 novel Nigger Heaven. Wilson writes that Thurman and Rapp conceived Harlem as an “educational drama”—that is, as a rejoinder to those stereotypical representations of blacks often found in cultural productions like Van Vechten’s fiction. Indeed, with the play, they “strove to ‘present the [N]egro as he is’” (45). Despite this desire to offer a more complex portrayal of black life, Harlem became best-known for its raucous rent-party scene. Wilson notes that Thurman and Rapp initially incorporated the scene at the request of their backers and director David Belasco and as a means to attract audiences “who craved the exuberant and sensational side of Harlem” (73). Ultimately, the scene undercut the authors’ intentions to complicate racial representations: “The pressure of accommodating the demands of a popular theater apparatus—intent on confirming racial stereotypes—all but [made] the work of two artists trying to transcend racial categorization burst at its seams” (59). Even so, Wilson shows, Harlem inspired considerable debate about the limits, burdens, and politics of representation during the period.
In chapters 3 and 4, Wilson further illuminates these debates with his incisive examination of the influence of Lulu Belle, the eponymous character of Sheldon and MacArthur’s 1926 play. Originally performed by a white actress, Lenore Ulric, in blackface, the character of Lulu Belle, Wilson writes, “unleashed a host of racial and sexual desires and let loose a maelstrom of anxieties revolving around black womanhood” (89). For those invested in an ideology of racial uplift, Lulu Belle, through her unabashed disavowal of middle-class ideals, morals, and values, became an emblem for the lack of black social and cultural advancement...