Frank H. Wilson: Rennaisance Man

Frank H. Wilson (1886-1956), was an African American actor, singer, playwright and director who got his start during the Harlem Renaissance, and later dabbled in films.

Wilson started out in black vaudeville and minstrelsy, and also performed in big time vaudeville backing Eddie Leonard. He also sang with a group called the Carolina Comedy Four.

Wilson had aspirations to be a serious actor, however. In Harlem he acted at the Lafayette Theatre and the Lincoln Theatre. He also organized a group called the Folk Song Singers, which sang spirituals. In 1917 he began a course of study at the American Academy of Dramatic Art. Here he became associated with the actress Rose McClendon, with whom he was to appear in many plays, including Justice (1919). In 1923 two of his own short plays, The Heartbreaker and A Train North, were produced by Harlem’s Acme Players.

From here he went to Broadway, where he was to work steadily for three decades. He was in the original productions of Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1924) and The Emperor Jones (1925), Paul Green’s In Abraham’s Bosom (1927), and Dorothy and Dubose Heyward’s Porgy (1927), in which he played the title character. In 1926 he organized an all-black chorus for John Alden Carpenter’s ballet Skyscrapers, at the Metropolitan Opera. (An excellent essay about that production gave us some valuable background for this post). In 1928 his own play Meek Mose was produced on Broadway. 19 other Broadway shows followed, notably the original productions of Marc Connelly’s The Green Pastures (1935), Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine (1941), Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific (1943), and Clifford Odets’ The Big Knife (1949). Following The Great Pastures, he wrote and directed Walk Together Chillun (1936) which was produced by the Negro Theatre Unit of the Federal Theatre Project.

Wilson’s screen career was much more modest. His film debut was in Oscar Micheaux’ The Girl from Chicago (1932), followed by the Hollywood adaptations of The Emperor Jones (1933) and The Green Pastures (1936), both of which he had appeared in on Broadway. In 1933 he was in a short musical bio pic called Stephen Foster. In 1939 he starred in the race film Paradise in Harlem with Mamie Smith and Edna Mae Harris. This was followed by Murder on Lenox Avenue (1941), for which he wrote the story and played a bit part. 

His last stage credit was Take a Giant Step (1953). After this he appeared on two TV shows, The United States Steel Hour and The Elgin Hour, in 1954, capping off a remarkable career.

For more about vaudeville, of which Frank H. Wilson was a veteran, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.