READ EXCERPT: 'Stormy Weather'

McClendon reached that zenith via Harlem's Lafayette Theatre, nirvana for an aspiring black actor. Billed as "America's Leading Colored Theatre," the two-thousand-seat hall hosted the Lafayette Players, a legitimate Negro stock company. Founded in 1915, the ensemble was a big step forward from minstrel shows, vaudeville, and many silent films, where blacks were usually portrayed as thick-lipped, nappy-haired buffoons. Instead, the Players performed everything from Shakespeare to all-black versions of Broadway hits, such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

In 1921, Edna walked into the Lafayette during an open audition and recited a monologue from Antony and Cleopatra. Her flair for melodrama served her well, and she walked out of the theater as a Lafayette Player. Edna had never known such joy. Soon she was emoting her way through ingénue roles in plays like Madame X. Now a working (if meagerly paid) actress, she sometimes reclaimed her four-year-old from Cora and showed her off at the theater. Lena retained a happy memory from that time. Edna had a part in Way Down East, a popular Victorian tragedy that had just made it to the silent screen. The stage set contained a fireplace, and before curtain time one night, Edna sat Lena behind it and allowed her to watch the show through a little hole. Even at four, the stage thrilled her.

The Lafayette Players had a branch in Philadelphia, and Edna went there in 1921 to perform in Madame X. Although Cora was dead set against it, Edna took Lena. There, the child made her "acting" debut. One scene depicted a little girl lying in her sickbed. Lena played the part impeccably. In her 1950 memoir, she recalled wandering around backstage, in and out of dressing rooms, awestruck by the theater and fantasizing about stardom. The most dazzling sight of all was her mother, whose beauty and talent overwhelmed her. "I was certain that she must be the most wonderful actress in the world," said Horne. Cora's warnings about Edna fell aside; Lena dreamed of doing exactly as her mother had done.

For a while, Edna's career seemed to thrive. "I can understand why she believed she was on the threshold of a brilliant future," observed Lena.

The girl was home in Brooklyn in the autumn of 1922 when Edna trekked for the Lyceum Theatre in Stamford, Connecticut. She'd been cast in the ninety-three-member, all-black company of a musical revue, Dumb Luck. Its name bespoke the producer's wishful thinking. He'd taken that huge company to Connecticut with hardly any budget, praying the reviews would attract investors who would pay for a move to Broadway. Dumb Luck lasted two nights. "The show was lousy, so they closed it," said blues singer Alberta Hunter, one of its stars. The cast was left stranded. Headliner Ethel Waters had been in that bind before, and wangled a sale of the costumes in order to pay for everyone's ride home. The incident would become all too familiar to Edna as her short career wore on.

By now Lena was enrolled in the brand-new Ethical Culture School in Brooklyn. No one had to force her to do her reading; at home she spent hours in her bedroom, the covers pulled up to her chin as she turned the pages of storybooks. She'd taught herself to read before kindergarten; now she devoured children's tales—especially ones about orphans, with whom she empathized.

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