Verna Day-jones

Diva Of The Baltimore Stage Tackled A Range Of Roles, Winning Accolades For Her Portrait Of Harriet Tubman

October 07, 2009|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Verna Day-Jones, a versatile Baltimore actress who during her more than 60-year career working on stage, in film and in television was critically acclaimed for her portrayal of Harriet Tubman, died of undetermined causes Friday at Union Memorial Hospital.

The longtime Poplar Grove Street resident was 85.

"We are waiting for the results of an autopsy," said a daughter, Stephanie Carter of Baltimore.

Verna Lucille Lee was born and raised in Pittsburgh, and was a 1942 graduate of Schenley High School.

Her interest in a theatrical career began as a teenager when she worked as a cashier and usher at several Pittsburgh movie theaters.

"This is where she developed a love of the stage and hobnobbed with such famous actors as Lena Horne," Mrs. Carter said. "As to not be confused with an actress of the same name, Verna changed her name to Verna Faye Lee."

She moved to Baltimore in 1943 after being recruited by the federal government to go to work with the Social Security Administration, which in those days was located downtown on the waterfront in the Candler Building.

Mrs. Day-Jones worked as a file clerk and after several promotions became an employee development specialist. She later moved to the SSA's headquarters in Woodlawn and retired from the agency after 41 years of service in 1984.

While working for the SSA in the 1940s, Mrs. Day-Jones modeled for the Pauline Brooks Boutique and began acting with the Greenwich Theater, Baltimore's first integrated acting company, which was located in Morgan Hall at Pennsylvania and North avenues.

During its inaugural season that year, Mrs. Jones-Day appeared in the company's production of "Deep Are the Roots," by playwrights Arnaud d'Usseau and James Gow.

In 1953, Mrs. Day-Jones joined Arena Players Inc., which had been founded that year and starred in its second production, "Picnic." That performance began an association with the company that would endure for the next 56 years until her death.

Ben Prestbury, a Baltimore actor, director, playwright and producer, first met Mrs. Day-Jones when they both worked at SSA.

"I guess I've knowN Verna for 50 years. She was an excellent actress and could do a variety of roles in various types of plays. She preferred comedy because she could make people laugh but was fully capable of doing serious drama," Mr. Prestbury said.

"Verna was the doyenne, the grand dame, the Sarah Bernhardt of Arena Players," said former Sun drama critic J. Wynn Rousuck.

"When Verna Day-Jones wasn't on stage, she was in the audience, sitting in the front row," she said. "She was not only a fixture there, she embodied the spirit of Arena Players."

In a 1991 article in The Sun, Mrs. Day-Jones explained her infatuation with the theater.

"I'm a person who needs to be loved. In my lifetime, I didn't get a lot of that. ... The theater has been my chance to prove something. In a way, I'm a ham. I want people to know Verna. It's a shame, isn't it?"

James A. Brown got to know Mrs. Day-Jones when he worked at Arena in the 1990s.

"She was a spitfire and embodied what a professional actor is supposed to be," Mr. Brown said. "She worked hard and didn't wait for shows to come to her."

In addition to stage work, Mrs. Day-Jones expanded her repertoire to include commercials, movies and TV.

Some of her television roles included "Homicide: Life on the Street," "The Wire," "The Corner" and "America's Most Wanted," and she appeared in such films as "Hairspray," "Clara's Heart" and "The Bedroom Window."

Pat Moran, the Baltimore film casting agent, first got to know Mrs. Day-Jones in 1963.

"As an actress, Verna was a tour de force and was very much an actress from another era," said Ms. Moran. "She was born to be an actress, and I believe had Verna gone to New York, she would have been one of the great actresses of the stage."

Amini Johari-Courts, coordinator of the theater program at Coppin State University, had been artistic director at Arena.

"She certainly was the diva of Baltimore theater and was a person who really graced the stage. She really was a star," said Ms. Johari-Courts. "You can't think of Verna Day-Jones without thinking of her large persona on stage."

For the past decade or so, Mrs. Day-Jones had entertained audiences with her interpretation of Harriet Tubman, the runaway slave who became known as the "Moses of her people," at historic Orchard Street Church.

Her last public performance was Sept 19, when she performed her Tubman play at Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church.

"And Verna got a standing ovation when it was over," said Tom Saunders, president of Renaissance Promotions and Tours.

Her husband of 26 years, the Rev. John Minor Day Jr., who had been associate minister at Douglas Memorial Community Church, died in 1976. Her second husband of two years, Albert Johnny Jones, a retired SSA worker, died in 2001.

Plans for services were incomplete yesterday.

Also surviving are another daughter, Lina Elaine Day of Gwynn Oak; three stepsons, Dennis Day and John Day III, both of Baltimore, and Cortlandt Jones of Asheville, N.C.; a stepdaughter, Marguerite Hunt-Evans of Venice, Fla.; 14 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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