Shirley Jo Finney, who started as an actor and built a career as a theatre director in Los Angeles, died on Oct. 10. She was 74.
To be in a rehearsal room with director Shirley Jo Finney was like being in a prayer circle with a shaman. She spoke about Spirit with actors. Divine spirit. How to let it guide you like gusts in a sail. She spoke of the ancestors with uncanny familiarity, as if they were neighbors next door.
Each actor had to learn how to speak “Shirley Jo,” a sacred language beyond words that pierced to the core of human truth. Actors loved her. She was all in the mess with them, brilliantly leading them to the light.
We loved each other as sister and brother. She directed nine plays at my theatre, three of them written by me. An expert in guiding new work with a keen eye and ear, she helped sharpen my jazz play, Central Avenue, by suggesting I compose the dialogue like music: fast tempos, counterpoints, and progressions. The play ran for eight months. With Citizen: An American Lyric, she staged my adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s book-poem on racism with the same fierce awareness of meter and rhythm. Though visually striking, it became a piece one could close one’s eyes and listen to; the language was so finely honed. It is now produced nationwide.
If I had to choose my foremost moment with Shirley Jo Finney from the millions we shared in our 26 years, it would be when I called her the day after New Year’s, 2010, telling her that Ben Bradley had been killed. A beloved member of our Fountain Theatre family, Ben was set to direct our West Coast premiere of Ifa Bayeza’s The Ballad of Emmet Till. Days before the first rehearsal, Ben was found murdered. I was shattered—all of us were destroyed.
I called Shirley Jo.
“Will you direct it?”
She said yes with the certainty of someone who knows it’s her calling to serve when those she loves are in crisis. The next day, she was there. With no time to prepare as a director, she strode into that rehearsal hall and took over the room like a servant of God. She gathered the company. We wept, sharing our deep shock and grief. Then we turned to her. And she spoke. Through the strength of her emotional power, the sheer force of her physical presence, she lifted every soul in that room, whisking us backward in time to a small town in Mississippi where an innocent teenage boy was murdered in a barn, his body tossed in a river, leading us into the present day when, just 48 hours before, our dear friend and colleague was slaughtered, revealing to us that performing this play would be an act of catharsis and healing.
She described her production concept, metaphors bursting forth, none of it predetermined, all of it spontaneous, motifs tumbling out of her mouth, fast as Spirit sent them. On that unforgettable afternoon, she was not a director. She was a vessel, a conduit through which creativity flowed. I sat beside her in awe, mouth open, overwhelmed by my love for her. A horrific tragedy had been transformed into a spiritual mission, and my dear friend, Shirley Jo Finney, had reshaped it.
Stephen Sachs is the founding artistic director of the Fountain Theatre.
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