Bert Williams—a Black man forced to perform in blackface who challenged the stereotypes of minstrelsy. Eva Tanguay—an entertainer with the signature song “I Don’t Care” who flouted the rules of propriety to redefine womanhood for the modern age. Julian Eltinge—a female impersonator who entranced and unnerved audiences by embodying the feminine ideal Tanguay rejected. At the turn of the twentieth century, they became three of the most provocative and popular performers in vaudeville, the form in which American mass entertainment first took shape.
A Revolution in Three Acts explores how these vaudeville stars defied the standards of their time to change how their audiences thought about what it meant to be American, to be Black, to be a woman or a man. The writer David Hajdu and the artist John Carey collaborate in this work of graphic nonfiction, crafting powerful portrayals of Williams, Tanguay, and Eltinge to show how they transformed American culture. Hand-drawn images give vivid visual form to the lives and work of the book’s subjects and their world.
This book is at once a deft telling of three intricately entwined stories, a lush evocation of a performance milieu with unabashed entertainment value, and an eye-opening account of a key moment in American cultural history with striking parallels to present-day questions of race, gender, and sexual identity.
Read a Columbia News interview with Professor Hajdu about A Revolution in Three Acts.