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Burrows gives one-woman show honoring actress

Vinie Burrows
Vinie Burrows

Broadway actress, writer and director Vinie Burrows will pay homage to one of her underappreciated theatrical predecessors, Rose McClendon, in a workshop production at MIT next week.

Burrows began her acting career on Broadway when she was a teenager, sharing the stage with Helen Hayes in a play directed by Joshua Logan. In rapid succession came six other Broadway plays and many off-Broadway productions; she then branched out to create, produce and direct her own solo productions. She'll perform her latest one, "Rose McClendon: Black on the Great White Way," on Thursday, March 6 at 8 p.m. in Kresge Little Theater as part of a brief residency at MIT.

Described by theater critic Clive Barnes of The New York Post as "one of the reigning divas of the black theatre," Burrows began developing one-woman shows as a reaction to the scarcity of quality roles offered to actors of color.

Her newest show honors Rose McClendon (1884-1936), a premier African-American actress of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s who influenced the careers of many aspiring black actors of the period. Although Paul Robeson called McClendon "the foremost actress of the colored race" and renowned critic Alexander Woollcott compared her to the famed Italian actress Eleonora Duse, there are no biographies, books, plays or scholarly dissertations about her.

"As a young actor, the lives and talents of the great actresses of the past fascinated me," said Burrows, who also noticed that all of these actresses were white. When she saw a photograph of McClendon in a Harlem public library, Burrows said she "intuitively felt that she [McClendon] belonged in the pantheon of great performers."

Burrows' play blends fact with fiction, using scenes from roles that McClendon actually played as well as roles she could have played if Broadway had, as Burrows observes, "fully used her considerable gifts."

The MIT performance will be directed by Associate Provost for the Arts Alan Brody, who also directed Burrows in her internationally-acclaimed one-woman show, "Sister! Sister!"

"Vinie is the most accomplished, powerful, passionate artist I have ever worked with," says Brody. "Her presence is mesmerizing, her fierce intelligence inspiring." Burrow was awarded the 2002 McDermott Award in the Arts from the Council for the Arts at MIT last September. While at MIT she will engage with students in acting classes and meet with students and faculty in several informal settings.

In addition to her active theater career, Burrows is a vigorous peace activist and serves as the permanent representative to the United Nations for the Women's International Democratic Federation.

She recently added one more credit to her résumé: a graduate degree in performance studies from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. "I wanted to put a theoretical framework on what I had been doing practically," she said. "I also wanted to see if my little gray cells would still work."

Burrows said her experience in graduate school was "exhilarating and exhausting."

"I don't look at anything the same way anymore," she said, "whether it's being with my newest grandchild or thinking of the Feb. 15 anti-war rally," in which she participated.

"They say love is not for the young," adds Burrows. "It's the same with education."

Burrows will perform portions of "Rose McClendon" as part of MIT's annual "African-American Living History Museum" tomorrow (Thursday, Feb. 27) at 5:30 p.m. in the Sala de Puerto Rico. Organized by Associate Professor Thomas DeFrantz, the performance will feature student portrayals of activists, scientists and inventors prominent in African-American history.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 26, 2003.

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