Ethel Barrymore in “Sister Scarlet Mary”
Stage legend Ethel Barrymore continually sought challenges to advance her craft through her many decades in the theater. In the late 1920s, she took on perhaps her biggest challenge, portraying the lead character in “Scarlet Sister Mary,” adapted from Julia Peterkin’s 1928 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. What she then considered appropriate and rewarding for her career would today be considered a major faux pas, since the lead character was actually a 16-year-old Black woman.
The third book of novelist Peterkin, “Scarlet Sister Mary” followed in her tradition of strong Black characters speaking in the Gullah dialect, with independent, self-assured women making their own rules for life and love. While she wrote about the Black experience, Peterkin was actually the white plantation mistress, but one who felt a strong affinity for her characters and their real life models.
Mary Mallory’s “Living With Grace” is now on sale.
A program from “Sister Scarlet Mary” is listed on EBay.
Raised by a Black nanny after her mother’s early death, Peterkin felt a stronger connection with the nurse and other servants than her own distant family. Unusual for her time, she graduated from college with a master’s degree and taught for a short time before marrying William Peterkin, heir to the 1,500-acre Lang Syne Plantation and its 500 Black workers at Fort Motte, S.C. After giving birth to a son, Peterkin found herself forcibly sterilized by her own father, a doctor. Nursed to health by a Black servant and tutored by Lavinia Berry, a house servant, Peterkin grew close to the women, spending her time with them and other Black women on the plantation, empathizing with their spirit and travails. She yearned to be as assertive, strong, and outspoken as they.
When her son turned 21, Peterkin finally turned to writing, blending in autobiographical elements of her own life with situations observed from her Black servants. Finding her voice with short stories, Peterkin turned to novels five years later, quickly gaining renown and respect from writers, both white and Black, who found her work complex, sympathetic and moving. Alain Locke, father of the Harlem Renaissance, described her novels as revealing “a new attitude of the literary South toward Negro life.” W.E.B. Du Bois would write, “Peterkin is a Southern white woman, but she has the eye and the ear to see beauty and know truth.”
Many Southerners initially were turned off by her work and subject matter, but as the author increasingly received critical and scholarly praise, they began changing their minds. Her own family found the subject matter and its characters distasteful. A white woman helped bring Black literature alive in the 1920s, later receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1928 for her third novel, the first book by a Southerner to win the prize.
“Scarlet Sister Mary,” banned in Peterkin’s hometown Carnegie library as well as Boston, revealed the story of Mary, abandoned by her husband and ostracized by her church for her superstitious and sexy ways. She gives birth to eight illegitimate children and raises her eldest daughter’s child, while being ostracized by her church for her sinful ways for using a love charm over susceptible men. Many critics found it lyrical and full of “epic breadth and sweep,” while many denigrated it for what they called loose morals and values.
Impressed with its strong lead character and rich subject matter, Ethel Barrymore purchased rights to the novel in January 1929 to demonstrate her acting range. Thanks to the Shubert organization, Barrymore produced and directed works of her own choosing at a Broadway stage named in her honor, with right to choose her own casts and shows. Barrymore intended to open the first act in blackface as 16-year-old Mary, with the entire cast in blackface as well.
Review of “Scarlet Sister Mary” in the Brooklyn Times Union, Nov. 26, 1930.
Barrymore told the Washington Star (October 8, 1930) that she fell in love with the work for the role of Mary “because of her unusual attitude toward life.” The paper announced “She considered the play and the part among the finest she was found in modern literature.” Barrymore revealed to the Los Angeles Times, “It is a tremendous work, a story of a patrician Negress of the South, by Julia Peterkin. The protagonist comes of pure African stock, there are few of the class left in this country.” Papers trumpeted her buy, with the Calexico Chronicle on September 6 announcing that she would be the “first member of the royal Barrymore family to appear in blackface,” a major test even for such a talented actress.
Throwing herself into the work, Barrymore hired Daniel Reed to adapt it while she took dance lessons with Billy Pierce, creator of the Charleston and Black Bottom dances. Variety’s June 19, 1929, issue stated that Barrymore studied with Pierce “to do it right in the colored way,” learning “to jazz it up.” In August she conferred with Paramount Astoria’s makeup man Tom Cameron on her makeup for the role.
Barrymore’s 18-year-old daughter, Ethel Barrymore Colt, made her stage debut in “Scarlet Sister Mary” after graduating from a Pennsylvania finishing school and traveling Europe with her mother. Opening first in Columbus, “Scarlet Sister Mary” moved on to Cleveland and Detroit before heading to Broadway, with a white cast in blackface and a Black choir. Cleveland’s response to the production suggested potential trouble. Tickets sold well, with audiences eager to see Barrymore in such an unusual part. Cleveland papers wrote of Barrymore’s taking the role of the 16-year-old “in her vivid odyssey from youth and a primitive joy in life to old age and a true spiritual understanding.” Many reviled the work for what they called loose morals.
Most papers panned the production, though they praised Barrymore’s work. The Indianapolis Times reviewer described the sketchy material and adaptation, feeling that the actress played the role in her regular drawing room style. On point, he stated, “I would like to be kind to Miss Barrymore, but I find that I cannot honestly do it. I sincerely believe that this cast of white players can not capture the charm, tragedy and the superstition of these Negroes. Maybe no white cast in the world can do it…I am afraid that Miss Barrymore and the director decided to make sister Mary too white both in dress and soul…. .”
An article on “Scarlet Sister Mary” from the Associated Negro Press, in the Pittsburgh Courier, Oct. 11, 1930.
Other reviewers recounted monotonous second and third acts, along with the fact that most of the cast “couldn’t be heard.” Several papers reported audience members in the first five rows couldn’t make out what the cast was saying in trying to speak Gullah, while those at the back and balcony couldn’t hear.
“Scarlet Sister Mary” debuted on Broadway to mixed reviews, with the Los Angeles Times reporting that attendance was less about the play and more about “the appearance of a leading actress of her time in blackface.” Variety reported that results would likely disappoint, finding it “difficult to understand what attracted Miss Barrymore to such a trifling narrative,” and predicting the show wouldn’t make it through the winter.
After premiering on Broadway November 25, 1930 with costumes by Orry Kelly and featuring Marjorie Main and Estelle Winwood, “Scarlet Sister Mary” closed December 13 after 34 performances, with Variety calling it the “quickest flop Ethel Barrymore has ever recorded on Broadway,” with several insinuating that Barrymore’s friends and fans didn’t want to see the actress in blackface. Receipts dropped by almost half the second week. In February, Variety said that it “probably collected more bad newspaper notices than any piece to play the town in some time.”
Benjamin Casseres in Screenland’s Stage Column admitted knowing nothing of the novel, “but the play is the most fascinating study of dullness that even these ears and eyes have been fanned with.
“The Gullah South burnt cork whites making stabs at talking like negroes. They got as near to it as Henry Ford has to comprehending Kant.
“Ethel Barrymore, who was made by God for sophisticated drawing room comedies, appears in blackface first as a Liza that got married and was then deserted; then as the town Lula Belle, then, finally, going back to the Church, leaving the country boys flat.
This is the best comedy we have had on Broadway since Bugs Baer played Hamlet.”
Undeterred, a determined Barrymore took the show on the road for a short time to places like Boston and Chicago. As she told the press, “My friends in New York are determined not to come to see me in blackface. That is all right but I believe in this play and I’m going to take it to some cities, on tour, which have expressed a desire to see me in it.”
While Barrymore intended her production as a respectful and dignified look at Blacks living on a plantation in South Carolina, she failed to understand the work would lose its power with a white cast instead of Black actors, and would instead draw attention for all the wrong reasons. A dedicated attempt to bring a slice of Black life to white audiences in 1930 instead became an unintentional racist production buried and forgotten for decades.