Thomas, Edna (1886–1974)

views updated

Thomas, Edna (1886–1974)

African-American actress. Born Edna Lewis in 1886 in Lawrenceville, Virginia; died of heart disease on July 22, 1974, in New York City; married Lloyd Thomas.

Debuted in Turn to the Right, Lafayette Players (1920); appeared as Lady Macbeth (1936); appeared in Androcles and the Lion with Dooley Wilson (1938), in Harriet with Helen Hayes (1944–45), in Strange Fruit (1945), and on Broadway and in the film A Streetcar Named Desire (1946).

The stage and screen actress Edna Thomas made her name as part of the Harlem Renaissance. Little is known about her early life or education except that she was born in 1886 and raised in Virginia. She began performing in 1920 with the Lafayette Players, a touring dramatic troupe. She had moved to New York by the early 1920s, joining the resurgence of African-American literature, music, and drama known as the Harlem Renaissance. She performed in all-black theaters and vaudeville productions, perhaps most notably in Comedy of Errors in 1923 and Porgy in 1927. Like Langston Hughes and other figures of the Harlem Renaissance, Thomas enjoyed the support and friendship of the important white patron Carl Van Vechten, with whom she corresponded regularly. Opportunities for black actors fell drastically during the Depression, but Thomas' seasoned professionalism and reputation secured her roles in several productions in the early 1930s, including Comedy of Errors, Lulu Belle, and Shuffle Along, and leading roles in Hall Johnson's Run, Little Chillun (1933) and Paul Peters' Stevedore (1934). She also sang and performed in vaudeville.

Edna Thomas reached the height of her fame when she played Lady Macbeth in the Works Progress Administration (WPA)'s Federal Theater Project production of Macbeth in 1936–37. Directed by Orson Welles, the all-black cast received rave reviews in the New York press; Thomas' performance was hailed as "sensitive and magnificent." She went on to perform again with the Federal Theater Project in Androcles and the Lion with Dooley Wilson. The closing of the Project proved a hardship to Thomas and hundreds of other African-American actors; her next major role came in 1943 when she was cast in the Broadway play Harriet, about abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe (portrayed by Helen Hayes ). Thomas appeared the following year on Broadway in Strange Fruit, an adaptation of Lillian Smith 's controversial novel about interracial relationships. In 1946, the light-skinned Thomas performed in her final Broadway production, playing a Mexican woman in A Streetcar Named Desire; she was also cast in the same role for the 1951 Hollywood film, her only movie credit. Thomas then retired from acting and spent her last years in New York, where she died at age 88 in 1974.


Gill, Glenda E. White Grease Paint on Black Performers: A Study of the Federal Theater, 1935–1939. NY: P. Lang, 1988.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California

About this article

Thomas, Edna (1886–1974)

Updated About content Print Article