Special to the AmNews
No mention of Black actors and actresses or Black theater—especially from a Harlem standpoint, where Frederick O’Neal and Abram Hill founded the American Negro Theater—is complete without some discussion of Rose McClendon.
McClendon—who was born Rosalie Virginia Scott in Greenville, S.C.. or North Carolina, depending on the source, in 1884—arrived in New York City as a child and almost immediately began performing in plays produced in various churches. She was in her 30s when she won a scholarship to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Art, and thus began her lengthy and productive acting career.
It was during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s that McClendon began to command attention for her prowess on the stage. Finding decent parts for Black actresses was exceedingly difficult, but she managed to secure several in white-produced and -written plays. In 1924, five years after a small role in “Justice,” she co-starred with Charles Gilpin in “Roseanne,” produced at Harlem’s famed Lafayette Theatre, where she would come under the guidance of Anita Bush. Gilpin was the leading African-American actor of his day, but this role was another stereotypical part, with his portrayal of a conniving, lustful preacher, with a plot resembling King Vidor’s “Hallelujah!,” one of the top films at that time. Eventually, Gilpin was replaced by Paul Robeson.
There were few Black operas during the Renaissance period, but McClendon landed a part in “Deep River” (1926), written by Frank Harling with a book by Laurence Stallings, both white. The production takes place in New Orleans in 1835, with singers Charlotte Murray and Jules Bledsoe sharing the stage, but McClendon is alone when she descends the winding staircase during a scene from a quadroon ball, where the participants were one-quarter black.
As the author James Weldon Johnson wrote, “McClendon had to come slowly—ever so slowly—and walk through a patio, then off stage. It was a high test for poise, grace and aristocratic bearing.” She performed with similar sophistication in Paul Green’s “In Abraham’s Bosom,” and, unsurprisingly, the locale is once again in the South, but this time featuring far more dignity and respect for the Black experience. McClendon received the Morning Telegraph Acting Award for her portrayal the following year, along with Ethel Barrymore and Lynn Fontanne. It was a role that gave McClendon an opportunity to display the full expanse of her emotional arsenal.
Along with her occasional roles, McClendon also began to try her hand at directing, mostly with the Harlem Experimental Theatre. But she answered a call to portray Serena in the original production of “Porgy,” which gave her an opportunity to see Europe and parts of the United States during the play’s tour.
In 1931, she was once again featured in a play by Green, “The House of Connelly.” This put her under the direction and tutelage of the renowned Lee Strasberg and his Group Theatre. A year later, she was the recipient of glowing reviews for her role in “Never No More,” with its focus on lynching. The play, after a short run, faced closing, but the poet Sterling Brown wrote so passionately about the play and McClendon’s role as a grieving mother that the play was extended.
McClendon was very busy over the next two or three years with parts in such plays as “Black Souls” (1932), Annie Nathan Myer’s drama about a Black poet who has an affair with a white senator’s daughter in Paris. And like several other plays with McClendon, lynching is again germane to the plot. It was a brief run for McClendon and her co-star, the film actor Juano Hernandez. In “Brainsweat” (1934), the less said the better, with McClendon the only redeeming factor. “Roll Sweet Chariot” (1934) reunited her with Green in a play that was billed as a “Symphonic Play (or Poem) of the Negro People.” It did not compare favorably with “In Abraham’s Bosom” in appeal or length of run on Broadway.
Langston Hughes’ “Mulatto” was the first full-length play by a Black author to have a Broadway production. The play was basically a retelling of Hughes’ short story “Father and Son,” which was published in the collection “The Ways of White Folks.” McClendon had the lead role as Cora Lewis (created specifically for her by Hughes), the mother of three children by her white master, one of whom is educated. Recalled noted Renaissance authority Bruce Kellner, “In a violent argument, he strangles his father and subsequently commits suicide just before a lynching mob arrives.” The mob was at the door when Cora held them off until she heard a gunshot and realized her son had taken his life before the mob could have its way. Whatever the plays’ deficiencies—and it had several according to major reviews—McClendon shone through the confusion. She was an “artist with a sensitive personality and a bell-like voice,” wrote Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times.
In fact, she would perform her role in “Mulatto” some 375 times before her death in 1935 or 1936. McClendon died from pleurisy and pneumonia at her home in New York City. She was 52.
A year before her death, she founded the Negro People’s Theatre with actor Dick Campbell, and Clifford Odets’s “Waiting for Lefty” was among its first productions. Campbell and Muriel Rahn reorganized the group, which was absorbed into the Federal Theatre Project before he renamed it the Rose McClendon Players in 1937. This was both a tribute to her and an assurance that the Players would continue to aspire to her dream of community enrichment.
For many years at Howard University, as part of the Moorland-Spingarn Library, there existed the Rose McClendon Memorial Collection, made up of photos dedicated to the institution by Carl Van Vechten, including several pictures of her taken by him. A lasting monument was the full-figure study of her by Richmond Barthe.