Mary Mallory / Hollywood Heights: Rose McClendon, First Lady of Black Theater

Rose McClendon, standing next to her reflection in a mirror
Rose McClendon, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, via the New York Public Library.

The first lady of the early Black stage, largely forgotten today, Rose McClendon set a blazing example of how talent could offer opportunity, even in difficult, discriminatory times. Her outstanding work made even white theater critics take notice. She brought dignity and grace to every performance, a forerunner of Sidney Poitier.

Born as Rosalie Virginia Scott in Greenville, South Carolina, August 27, 1884, McClendon began performing in and directing church plays as a teenager after the family moved to New York City, where her parents worked as domestics. At the age of 20, she married Dr. Henry Pruden McClendon, a chiropractor who worked as a Pullman porter. After winning a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Art, she became a professional actress in her thirties. McClendon made her stage debut in Justice in 1919. She gained strength and determination during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

Juano Hernandez and Rose McClendon, directed by Geraldine Garrick in John Henry.

In 1924, McClendon starred in Roseanne, a story of small-town realism, in an all-Black adaption. The Billboard critic stated that she “established herself as an actress. In spite of the lack of early opportunities, her work invited a comparison with the predecessor who had enjoyed a lifetime of special training and show-shop environment.”

In November 1926, New York World theater critic Alexander Woolcott and stage doyenne Ethel Barrymore praised McClendon and her fine acting in comments spread to Black newspapers by the NAACP Press Service. Woolcott compared the veteran actress to the great actress Eleanora Duse after watching her performance in what he called the “Jazz Opera” Deep River, an opera written by Frank Harling and Laurence Stallings which took place in New Orleans in 1835.

When Barrymore slipped in to a production of Deep River during a Philadelphia tryout, Arthur Hopkins told her to watch McClendon come down the stairs in the last act, saying “She can teach some of our most hoity-toity actresses distinction.” After seeing the praised performance, Barrymore retorted to him, “She can teach them all distinction.”

Her performance in this show led producers of the Paul Green drama, In Abraham’s Bosom, to sign her as lead actress for its run at New York’s Provincetown Theatre. Winner of the 1926 Pulitzer Prize, the play was called “a tragedy of Negro life..laid in eastern North Carolina,” and opened for a short run on December 28, 1926. Uneducated Black man Abraham hopes to raise the respect of his race and overthrow oppression, only to lead to tragedy.

Thanks to her position as the leading Black actress of the stage, she was signed for a major role in the 1927 production of the Dorothy and Du Bose Heyward work Porgy, the New York Theatre Guild’s first production of the new season. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian, the production focused on what press releases called “the trials and tribulations of Catfish row, Charleston, S. C.,” and its Black residents, featuring a nearly all-Black cast. She later toured the country in the production and its restaging on Broadway in 1929.

radiostars2219unse_0014In 1932, playwright Howard Lindsay staged the all-Black production of Never No More at the Hudson Theatre, a story of lynching. Written by James Knox Millin, the play told the story of a family of cotton pickers who find their lives destroyed by what some newspapers called “the lust of its black sheep member for a white girl,” leading to disaster for all. A New York newspaper columnist called the production “a prolonged and terrifying sob in sepia.”

Passionate in her views of promoting and advancing her race, McClendon was one of a dozen leading Black artists to donate their services in a benefit to raise money for the defense of the Scottsboro Boys and their appeal to the Supreme Court during that summer to overturn their false conviction of rape of two white women. McClendon and Never No More co-star Frank Wilson would perform scenes from their plays. Other artists and musicians giving of their time that day included baritone Taylor Gordon, Juano Hernandez, Cab Calloway and his orchestra, and dancer Martha Graham. The Daily Worker story also reported, “Brief talks on the Scottsboro case and its significance to the Negro will be made by Eugene Gordon, Negro novelist and journalist from Boston; Waldo Frank, novelist and critic, and Louise Thompson, young Negro intellectual leader of Harlem.”

That July she appeared in the drama The House of Connelly, featuring both white and Black actors. Such future stars as Franchot Tone, Stella Adler, and J. Edward Bromberg appeared, with playwright Clifford Odets playing a part. The inaugural production of the Group Theatre, it featured Strasberg as director.

In 1932, McClendon starred in the dark stage production Black Souls, a drama on interracial romance, in which a Black poet has an affair with a white Senator’s daughter in Paris. The respected actress played opposite Juano Hernandez, showing a nice chemistry, which would carry over into other productions.

Recognized for her talent, McClendon was hired by the Columbia Broadcasting System, along with actor Hernandez, to star in an unusual Sunday night radio series based on the exploits of Roark Bradford’s legendary strongman character John Henry, in a program called John Henry – Black River Giant. The production featured the deep talents of Hernandez, who adapted the stories along with Geraldine Garrick, composed the song Mississippi to blend with authentic folk songs, and also served as music director.

Besides promoting Black causes, McClendon also worked to better the lives of American workers, taking an active part in leftist and Communist party causes. She joined such people as Sherwood Anderson, Sidney Howard, Elmer Rice, John Howard Lawson, Lewis Mumford, John Dos Passos, Paul Muni, and others to form and serve as executive and advisory board members of the Theatre Union in 1933.

Praised by the Daily Worker, the company “will produce working class plays at prices within the reach of workers,” per the leftist newspaper. Instead of producing traditional “entertainment,” the organization would focus on issues of the day…”its point of view is the only one which offers a constructive guide – the interests of the great masses of the people, the working people, the workers as a class.” The group was organized and supported by unions, revolutionary groups, and famed authors, directors, and playwrights.

McClendon starred in Brain Sweat, “one of the few straight Negro comedies to find production on Broadway,” per the Twin City Herald in April 1934. Most critics praised the show, the story of lazy husband Henry Washington, who hadn’t worked in two years, but finds a way to outwit his former white employer. She also starred in two other stage productions that year, Black Souls and Roll, Sweet Chariot, billed as a “Symphonic Play (or Poem) of the Negro People.”

Impressed with her glowing work, Countee Cullen adapted Euripides’ Medea for a proposed Black production to star McClendon. Such luminaries as composer Virgil Thomson, producer John Houseman, and production designer Chick Austin contributed to the show, but McClendon’s ill health closed the show before it opened.

At the same time, McClendon served as the director of the Works Progress Administration Negro People’s Theatre, organizing black troupes nationwide during the Depression and for a short while directing the New York Theatre unit. In 1935, she brought the company to Harlem to give it its first legitimate theater in 10 years. Sadly, the Federal Theatre Project selected mostly whites to head the Harlem project, including John Houseman, who served as executive manager. An adaptation of Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty served as its first production.

McClendon appeared the same year in Archibald McLeish’s Broadway production of Panic. The short-lived show featured such actors as Wesley Addy, Abner Biberman, Zita Johann, Dane Clark, Richard Whorf, and a rising star Orson Welles, who recognized her talent and range.

When poet Langston Hughes’ first play, Mulatto, opened on Broadway in October 1935, McClendon headed the cast. Hughes told the press, “I am very happy to have Miss McClendon playing the lead in my play because I consider her the finest Negro actress on the stage.” Originally written six years before, the play had evolved from one of Hughes’ poems and featured nine characters, under the direction of veteran Chester Erskine. Many critics had issues with the production, with one stating that it “was no more of a play, methought, than S. Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here is a novel. Yet it was endowed with something of the same passionate earnestness.” New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson called her an “artist with a sensitive personality and a bell-like voice” for her strong performance. That December, McClendon was forced to leave the production after becoming critically ill with pleurisy.

Hoping to overcome illness, McClendon signed to play Lady Macbeth in Orson Welles’ Federal Theatre Project Macbeth production in 1936. Too ill to attempt such an important part, McClendon stepped aside. She died of pneumonia at her home July 12, 1936.

After her death, many honored her work and life. Dick Campbell, her Negro People’s Theatre co-founder, established the Rose McClendon Players in her honor in 1936. Photographer Carl Van Vechten organized the Rose McClendon Memorial Collection of Photographs of Celebrated Negroes at Howard University in Washington, D. C., in 1950.

Deserving of much more recognition, McClendon stole shows with small parts from more important and seasoned performers through sheer talent and passion. She fought to give Black performers greater opportunities and recognition, not just on stage, but in life as well. One of the most illustrious actresses of her age, McClendon illuminated the often despairing nature of our human condition, past and present.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in African Americans, Hollywood Heights, Mary Mallory, Stage and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Mary Mallory / Hollywood Heights: Rose McClendon, First Lady of Black Theater

  1. Robert Morrissey says:

    Very illuminating – so many connections to things I know about. But I really knew NOTHING about McClendon herself. Thank you!


  2. Sylvia E. says:

    Thank you Mary. Had not heard of Rose McClendon, I’m sorry to say. Heard of several others that she worked with (like Juano Hernandez) but not her. I’m so grateful for your story.


  3. stevw424 says:

    Larry, thank you for this post about Rose McClendon. She is not one of the talented African Americans artist mentioned when talking about the Harlem renaissance. But, she was a pioneer in the theater and artistic community. There is a lot of history in her life!


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