New York Times, June 6, 1958 (Fair use) Born: c. 1894

Died: June 6, 1958

Evelyn Ellis was and actress and a director.  She played the role of Bess in the 1927 hit drama, Porgy, the play upon which the Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess was based.

New York Times, June 6, 1958


Bess in 1927 Hit, 'Porgy'  Is Dead — Was Director of 'Tobacco Road' in 1950

SARANAC LAKE, N. Y., June 5 (AP)—Evelyn Ellis, who played the role of Bess in the 1927 hit drama, "Porgy," died here today at the age of 64.

Miss Ellis, a resident of New York City, had been a patient since last December at the Variety Club's-Will Rogers Memorial Hospital. She had been suffering from a heart ailment.

Made Debut in 'Othello'

As Crown's Bess, tormented by her sensual past, Miss Ellis ably assisted Frank Wilson, who played the title role in "Porgy."

The Theatre Guild first produced Dorothy and DuBose Heyward's play of Negro life in Catfish Row in 1927. The play later became the book for George and Ira Gershwin's folk opera, "Porgy and Bess."

Miss Ellis, who was born in Boston, made her professional stage debut in "Othello" in Harlem's famous Lafayette Theatre in 1919. She was seen on Broadway in Nan Bagby Stephen's "Roseanne."

Before her triumph in "Porgy" in 1927, Miss Ellis was seen here as Lucy Belle Dorsey in a revival of "Goat Alley," Ernest Howard Culbertson's drama of Negro life in Washington slums.

In 1941 Miss Ellis acted the mother in the Orson Welles staging of "Native Son" by Paul Green and Richard Wright. She played the mother of Canada Lee in the production and in the revival the next year. She was seen as the housekeeper in "Deep Are the Roots," by Arnaud d'Usseau and James Gow, staged here by Elia Kazan in 1945.

Directed Stage Play

Miss Ellis directed and played the starving, bedraggled mother, Ada Lester, in the all-Negro production on Broadway of Jack Kirkland's "Tobacco Road" in 1950.

"Believe it or not." Brooks Atkinson said in his review in The New York Times," "but there is a certain pathetic beauty in the part of the mother as Miss Ellis acts her." He noted that she stood out in what he described as a bad rendition of a "low" play.

In a revival of "The Royal Family" by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber in the City Center in 1951, Miss Ellis took the role of Bella. Her last Broadway appearance was as Aunt Emma in "Touchstone" by William Stucky in 1953.

Since then she had acted In several off-Broadway productions, including Mr. Green's "Supper for the Dead" at the Theatre de Lys the next year.

Miss Ellis also had acted frequently in television plays. In motion pictures she took the part of the fighter's mother in "The Joe Louis Story" and was in a featured role in "The Lady From Shanghai."