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.
James F. Wilson has based his rich cultural history on a wide range of documents from the period, including eyewitness accounts, newspaper reports, songs, and play scripts, combining archival research with an analysis grounded in a cultural studies framework that incorporates both queer theory and critical race theory. Throughout, he 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. Figuring prominently in the book are African American performers including Gladys Bentley, Ethel Waters, and Florence Mills, among others, and prominent writers, artists, and leaders of the era, including Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, Zora Neale Hurston, and W. E. B. Du Bois. The study also engages with contemporary literary critics, including Henry Louis Gates and Houston Baker.
"Demonstrating both scholarship and insight, Wilson has written a remarkable study of popular performance in the Harlem Renaissance...earlier histories of the period failed to treat performance itself in real depth...Although his account is a complex narrative drawn from autobiography, newspaper accounts, and court transcripts, the book reads as smoothly as a well-written historical novel. Presenting popular performance of the period in all of its ambiguity and convolution, the author illustrates how Harlem clubs, cabarets, and theaters were sites of subversion that challenged the dualities of 'male/female, hetero/homosexual and black/white.'"
—Choice, J H Houchin, Boston College