Helen Martin, an African-American actress who appeared on Broadway long before people of color were a regular part of the landscape there, died March 25 in Monterey, CA, The New York Times reported. Ms. Martin was 90.
For her Broadway debut, she played Vera Thomas alongside Canada Lee (he portrayed her brother, Bigger) in Orson Welles' 1941 staging of Native Son. She later toured with the show on the so-called subway circuit and into the provinces.
She acted in 1939 with the Rose McClendon Players in New York City and was a founding member of the American Negro Theatre in 1940, appearing in Striver's Row, Three's a Family and Hits, Bits and Skits.
Ms. Martin's career also included work in radio, film and television, most recently appearing as a neighbor in the TV sitcom, "227."
The St. Louis native attended Fisk University and would eventually perform around the country in stock, and across the Atlantic Ocean, appearing in London in Deep Are the Roots, which she had played in New York. Other Broadway appearances include Take a Giant Step, The Long Dream, Period of Adjustment, Purlie Victorious, My Mother, My Father and Me. She was a replacement in Jean Genet's The Blacks Off Broadway. Ms. Martin, who rose during a time when black actresses were offered maid or servant roles, would find richer possibilities as her career continued and the world changed. In the landmark TV miniseries "Roots," she played an elder in an African village, and played a variety of guest roles on "Benson," "Full House," "Good Times" and "That's My Mama." She appeared in the films "Hollywood Shuffle" (winning an NAACP Image Award), "Cotton Comes to Harlem," "Repo Man," and was Mama Doll in the Warren Beatty film, "Bulworth."
Her final film, "Something to Sing About," is expected to be released this year, according to The Times.
-- By Kenneth Jones