A versatile African-American dramatic actress, Rose McClendon was born in Greenville, South Carolina, but moved to New York as a child as part of the great migration prompted by the intensification of racism in the South during the 1890s. After an extensive amateur career in church theatricals in New York City, she won a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
As Octavie in the short-lived experimental opera "Deep River" (1926), McClendon's performance became the talk of theatre professionals. It secured her the role of Goldie McAllister in Paul Green's hit folk tragedy "In Abraham's Bosom." Her membership in the Provincetown Players gave her insight into the mechanics of running a dramatic institution, and connections with the experimental drama movement in Manhattan. The Theatre Guild engaged her to play Serena in Dubose Heyward's "Porgy," another long run.
By summer of 1928 she had cemented her reputation as the most successful black actress on Broadway. Paul Green, who was instrumental in the formation of the left-leaning Group Theater in the late 1920s, recruited her to play in his 1931 "The House of Connelly," a critique of decadent plantation culture that suffered perhaps from its earnestness. The early 1930s were not an era that occasioned much subtlty in the treatment of political themes, and McClendon had the misfotune of appearing in a series of plays that did not rise above ritual clashes of stereotypes. Finally in 1935, McClendon played Cora Lewis in Langston Hughes's landmark drama "Mulatto," a fitting culmination to a distinguished career.
She died suddently of pneumonia in 1936, at the age of fifty-one. In the last year of her life, she had co-founded the Negro People's Theatre in Harlem. After her death it was renamed the Rose McClendon players, and managed by Dick Campbell, operated as an experimental outpost of the Harlem Renaissance. David S. Shields/ALS