'Life' photographer W. Eugene Smith's 1951 photo essay demonstrated the health care work South Carolina midwife Maude Callen provided in Pineville | Photos by W. Eugene Smith/Courtesy Life magazine

A Los Angeles playwright has made good on a 30-year-old promise: Maude Callen, a humble 20th century midwife who served rural Berkeley County, will have her name in lights. 

The theatrical world has never met a woman like Callen, writer Martin Casella said, but now it will with the world premiere of Miss Maude. The play will be on stage in Houston later this month but is destined for Broadway in New York City, Casella said. 

“Everyone is going to fall in love with this woman because she’s what we all want to be. She has a sense of humor. She loves people but she’s also a human being,” said Casella, who has also written The Irish Curse. “That’s what makes great heroes even more heroic … that they are actually human.”

The play centers on the nearly two months in 1951 that Life magazine photojournalist W. Eugene Smith spent tailing Callen as she brought health care to the small, impoverished community of Pineville, nearly 30 miles outside Moncks Corner. In her religious-led work from 1923 until her death in 1990, Callen attended the births of hundreds, trained scores of midwives and gave care to vulnerable communities suffering from tuberculosis, typhoid, malnutrition and sexually transmitted diseases. 

“You couldn’t pick two people that outwardly seem more different than Eugene Smith and Maude Callen and yet, in that six or eight weeks they were together, they realized they were very, very similar,” Casella said. While Smith was more of the flawed-but-driven journalist with a broken home and Callen led a very religious life, both had a sense of humor and were what Casella called workaholics. Callen, a Black woman, was also navigating the Jim Crow South in her service whereas Smith was a progressive White man from up north.

Nonprofit theater The A.D. Players will perform the play at The George Theater in Houston. It will preview Sept. 21 through Sept. 29, and officially open on Sept. 30. Performances run Wednesdays through Sundays until Oct. 23. 

The performance has no plans for live streaming, so short of you grabbing a nearly $300 roundtrip plane ticket from Charleston to Houston, you’ll have to wait for the performance to be adapted into a major motion picture or, perhaps, live streamed from Broadway. Post-Broadway plans are complicated and it’s unclear at this point whether the play will come to Charleston anytime soon, according to Casella.

Headed to Houston

Going to Houston is exactly what Sumpter Free Health Clinic Executive Director Libba Carroll of St. Stephens plans to do. Carroll grew up during a time when Callen was a one-woman force of health care in the area. There wasn’t a time that Carroll didn’t know the name “Maude Callen,” although she was better known as Miss Maude, Nurse Maude or just plain Nurse. 

For the last five years, Carroll and her nonprofit have worked to renovate Callen’s old clinic building in Pineville. The hope is to turn it into a community center and national landmark. Recently, the lights were turned back on the building that was once funded by Life magazine readers’ donations.

“What great exposure for her work and her legacy,” Carroll said of the play. “She’s a very humble woman and I don’t think she would have ever thought her name would be on Broadway or would she have cared, but then again I care and I’m excited … Hopefully I live to see her name on Broadway, up in lights.”

Beauty of photographs

Casella first encountered Callen through Smith’s photographs in an early 1990s art exhibit in California.

“It was the beauty of the photos that captured me and the power of what this woman did in 1951,” Casella told the City Paper. “I was struck by the power of what one person was able to accomplish and then I learned the rest of the story … To dedicate her life to taking care of people, I was just overwhelmed by that.”

Casella traveled to Pineville not long after he saw the photographs. He met with Callen’s son, Sinclair, and some midwives she trained. 

“I just said tell me everything, tell me stories she told you, and it was just wonderful,” Casella said.

It was then that he made Sinclair a promise, the promise. 

“I promised Sinclair I would do this story and I said to him, ‘You may never see it yourself but I promise you, I will tell this story.’ She’s one of my heroes,” Casella said. Sinclair died in 2005.

New York actor Rosalyn Coleman is playing Callen. She said she was introduced to the Berkeley County midwife through the play and Smith’s iconic photos. 

“I was just sold,” the actor said. “It’s a very humbling experience to try to play someone who doesn’t want the spotlight, who just wants to do the work … I want to be of service like Maude was of service.”

She said she hopes her representation of Maude will spark more interest in Callen’s story and the nursing profession.

Learn more about the production at adplayers.org/miss-maude.

Lindsay Street, a former reporter for the Charleston City Paper and Statehouse Report, is writing a book about Maude Callen’s life. She can be reached at lindsay.street@gmail.com

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