The actor and director Shirley Jo Finney in 1974 in Sacramento, Calif., where she studied drama. “I have, basically, always been ‘the first African American,’” she once said.Credit…Frank Stork/Sacramento Bee, via the Center for Sacramento History
Shirley Jo Finney, an actor who became a prolific and award-winning director of plays that dug deeply into the Black experience, died on Oct. 10 in Bellingham, Wash. She was 74.
The cause of her death, in a hospital, was multiple myeloma, said Diana Finney, her sister and only immediate survivor.
Ms. Finney worked for nearly 40 years at regional theaters, where she directed dramas like Pearl Cleage’s “Flyin’ West, which tells the story of late-19th-century Black female homesteaders in Kansas; Ifa Bayeza’s “The Ballad of Emmett Till,” about the 14-year-old boy who was kidnapped, tortured and shot by two white men in Mississippi in 1955; and Dael Orlandersmith’s “Yellowman,” which examines interracial prejudice through the story of two young lovers, one with a light complexion and one with a dark one.
“She was very much drawn to material by great playwrights of color,” Sheldon Epps, the artistic director emeritus of the Pasadena Playhouse, where Ms. Finney directed twice, said by phone. “But it was also a result of the categorization that artists of color still suffer, where they are assigned to Black plays and not thought of for plays by other writers.”
Ms. Feeney was, Mr. Epps said, “passionate and relentless in all the right ways.”
When asked about her choice largely to direct plays about Black characters and themes, Ms. Finney recalled her background.
“I have, basically, always been ‘the first African American,’” she told The Los Angeles Times in 1999, during the run of “Flyin’ West” at the Pasadena Playhouse. “My family was the first African American family to move into the neighborhood that I integrated, and then I had to go to the elementary school there — so I’ve always done that. At U.C.L.A., I was the first African American to be in their M.F.A. program.”
She added: “How do you break out of the box, and where do you fit into society? How do we maintain the tradition of a tribe and still transcend our own humanity?”
Among the many venues at which Ms. Finney worked were the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, the Cleveland Play House, the Actors Theater of Louisville and the Goodman Theater in Chicago. But if she had a professional home, it was the Fountain Theater in Los Angeles, where she had directed eight plays since 1997, including “The Ballad of Emmett Till.”
In 2015, Ms. Finney was asked by Stephen Sachs, the Fountain’s artistic director, to direct his adaptation of “Citizen: An American Lyric” (2014), Claudia Rankine’s book-length poem and series of essays about race in today’s society.
“I read it, and I went, ‘Oh, this is my life,’” she said in a 2017 interview featured on the website of the Center Theater Group, home to the Taper, Kirk Douglas and Ahmanson Theaters in Los Angeles. “Citizen,” she said reminded her of “walking through and navigating those torrential waters of mainstream America when you are a person of color or ‘other,’ and what you have to swallow in order to survive.”
When the Fountain observed its 25th anniversary in 2015, Charles McNulty, The Los Angeles Times’s theater critic, wrote that Ms. Finney had infused “Citizen” with “the spirit of public reckoning” and added, “Her cast didn’t so much portray characters as stand in solidarity with the nameless voices reflecting, mourning and expressing outrage over the micro and micro aggressions (from a careless bigoted remark to police abuse) confronting Black people on a daily basis.”
Shirley Jo Finney was born on July 14, 1949, in Merced, Calif., about 55 miles northwest of Fresno. Her mother, Ricetta (Amey) Finney, was a teacher and counselor. Her father, Nathaniel, sold auto parts. In 1959 she moved to Sacramento with her mother, her sister, her stepfather, Charles James, a municipal court judge, and her stepbrother, also Charles James.
In high school, she was in the drama club. She then attended Sacramento City College for one semester before transferring to Sacramento State College (now California State University, Sacramento). At a party, she met Wilma Rudolph, the sprinter who had won three gold medals at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome and was teaching at the school. They became friends, and Ms. Finney became a babysitter for Ms. Rudolph’s children.
“I told her, ‘One day, I’m going to make a film about you,’” Ms. Finney recalled in an interview with The Sacramento Bee in 2000.
She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in drama in 1971 and earned a master’s degree in theater arts from the University of California, Los Angeles, two years later.
After appearing in several television series and films, she was cast by the director Bud Greenspan in the TV movie “Wilma” (1977), which also starred Cicely Tyson as Ms. Rudolph’s mother. It received mixed reviews, but John J. O’Connor of The New York Times wrote that it was “given a touch of substance through a good performance by Shirley Jo Finney.”
She continued to act occasionally into the 1990s, on series like “Lou Grant,” “Hill Street Blues” and “Night Court,” but by that time she had also begun to direct plays.
“I love actors, and I love that process of bringing people who are strangers together, to work for a common purpose,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 1999. “I love creating an atmosphere where you feel comfortable enough to share who you are, to create. And then you can go within to give the best you can give.”
She called that process “orgasmic.”
Mr. Sachs of the Fountain Theater said that Ms. Finney developed her own shorthand to communicate with actors.
“Actors had to learn to speak ‘Shirley Jo,’” Mr. Sachs said by phone. “She spoke a language unto herself, with body movement and her cackling laugh. She had a way. When she spoke, she’d stand up, pace around the room, or rock on a chair and say, ‘I’m feeling it, I’m feeling it.’ She was almost like a shaman.”
Among the honors Ms. Finney received were three Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards for her direction of individual plays and the organization’s Milton Katselas Award for her career work.
Although she worked around the country, Ms. Finney never directed on Broadway. Her only chance at it ended in 2008, when financial backing fell apart for a revival of Ntozake Shange’s play “For Colored Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf.”
In 2010, shortly before rehearsals were to begin for “The Ballad of Emmett Till,” the play’s director, Bennett Bradley, was stabbed to death. Mr. Sachs asked Ms. Finney to take over.
“She came into the rehearsal room that day, unprepared, and took over like she had been destined to do it,” Mr. Sachs recalled. “She delivered a benediction to the company; she brought the cast together to tell this story and said that what happened to Ben echoed what happened to Emmett Till. In five or 10 minutes, she turned us around.”