A Woman to Know: Rose McClendon

A leading role is taken by the exceptionally fine actress of color, Rose McClendon. — 1935 Playbill

(image via The New York Public Library)


Octavia, Sally, Goldie, Medea — these are the roles that solidifed the Harlem actress as an icon of the Broadway stage. After Rose played Serena in the hit musical "Porgy and Bess," Playbill dubbed her the most successful actor of color — actor, not just actress — of the early 20th century. Later in life, despite near-constant lung problems, she used her star power to headline a series of political dramas, including Langston Hughes's "Mulatto."

In 1935, she founded the Negro People's Theater, a drama company that funded shows in New York,Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and even Seattle. Just one year later, however, on the eve of her first performance as Lady Macbeth, Rose called in for an understudy. Her long battle with pneumonia had finally weakened her stage stamina, and she died in 1936. Later that year, the Negro People's Theater rebranded — now, they were "The Rose McClendon Players."

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