Shauneille Perry, a cousin of playwright Lorraine Hansberry once hailed as “Chicago’s gift to the world of drama,” who established herself as an actress, director, playwright, and writer, died at her home in New Rochelle, N.Y., on June 9 at the age of 92. Her death was confirmed by her daughter.
Born in Chicago in 1929, Perry came from an accomplished family. Her father, Graham T. Perry, who graduated from Northwestern University School of Law, was among the first Black assistant attorneys general in Illinois. Her mother, the former Laura Pearl Gant, was among the first Black court reporters in Chicago.
Although Perry began her career during a time when African American women in theatre were not highly regarded, her versatility, talent, and perseverance were widely recognized. At 24 she was already onstage with the legendary Ethel Waters, starring alongside Estelle Hemsley, Billie Allen, and Alberta Hunter in 1954’s triumphant Chicago run of Mamba’s Daughters, which had premiered on Broadway in 1939 starring Waters and Hunter.
Perry was classically trained, earning a B.A. in drama from Howard University (where she studied under Owen Dodson), and an MFA from the Goodman Theatre Art Institute in Chicago. In 1949, before she was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, she toured 14 cities in Europe with the Howard University Players. According to reporter C. Gerald Fraser, that trip was perhaps “the first State Department-sponsored European tour by a Black theatre troupe.”
For a while Perry worked as a journalist, writing for The Daily Defender and The Chicago Defender. She won a second-place essay competition in Ebony magazine’s Picturama Contest, with the prize being a $4,000 trip for two to Paris, which she took with her new husband, Donald P. Ryder, an architect.
On her return, she relocated to New York and worked on her acting career while establishing friendships with future stars. Among her peers was a young James Earl Jones, with whom she acted in Dark of the Moon (1960) and Clandestine on the Morning Line (1961). Jones acknowledged her talent and fortitude: “She was one of us. There is nothing more I can say. We were out there looking for work, trying to develop ourselves, trying to learn how to act. That’s what we were trying to do.”
A breakthrough in her acting career came with a series of performances: in The Goose (1959), Octoroon (1961), and Ondine (1961). Early in her career, Perry was privileged to be under the tutelage of actress, playwright, and director Vinnette Carroll, the first African American woman to direct on Broadway. Carroll became the model for Perry’s future plans.
Acting was her central passion until directing intervened. Over the next three decades she helmed a stack of plays, from Phillip Hayes Dean’s Sty of the Blind Pig (1971) to Ed Bullins’s The Taking of Miss Janie (2006). Most notable in her directorial canon is J.e. Franklin’s Black Girl (1971), later turned into a movie directed by Ossie Davis. After many decades, Franklin’s respect for Perry is still heartfelt. “It was from Shauneille Perry that I learned the importance of the playwright-director relationship,” said Franklin. “Because I learned early enough in my career, Black Girl has had a long, magical life.”
Other credits as director included Franklin’s Mau Mau Room at the Negro Ensemble Company, and Looking Back: The Music of Micki Grant, a retrospective revue of songs by Grant, which had its premiere production at Lehman College in the Bronx. Before her passing last year, Grant spoke about working with Perry: “She knew what she wanted; in other words, she could tell you straightforward what she needed in terms of what she wanted you to bring as a writer or actor. Some people would say: ‘Do this, or do that, or can you do this for me?’ She knew exactly what she needed.”
Perry was again connected with Franklin when she directed The Prodigal Sisters, a musical for which Franklin did the book and was a co-lyricist; Micki Grant was composer and co-lyricist.
Among the plays she directed at Woodie King Jr.’s Henry Street Settlement were Jamimma (1972) by Martie Evans-Charles and Showdown (1976) by Don Evans. In total, she did 15 plays for Henry Street Settlement, earning King’s confidence in her abilities. Said King, “Obviously, I think she is one of the outstanding, precise, and dedicated women of the American theatre.”
Perry directed or worked with many future stars, including Moses Gunn, Francis Foster, Clarence Williams III, Rosalind Cash, Clarice Taylor, Adolph Caesar, Cleavon Little, Hilda Simms, Louise Stubbs, Roscoe Lee Browne, and Cicely Tyson, among others.
Her playwriting did not garner her the critical reception that her directing did, but she authored and co-authored several plays, incuding Mio, a children’s musical she co-wrote with Julius Williams, which dramatized the story of a 13-year-old boy and his relationship with his pigeons. Daddy Goodness, an adaptation of Richard Wright’s play, ultimately became a musical with a book by Perry and Ron Miller. Her other works included Things of the Heart: Marian Anderson’s Story, a dramatization of events in the life of the singer.
Perry also wrote short stories, teleplays, radio soaps, and newspaper articles. She did the teleplay for John Henry Redwood’s play The Old Settler, in which the two sisters were portrayed by real-life sisters Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad.
A pioneer who nurtured new opportunities for Black artists, overcoming the bias and prejudice against women directors while advocating for change, Perry had the gift to speak directly to the reader, particularly in pieces in American Theatre and in Black Masks, two publications for which she covered many subjects, ranging from the increase of diversity in theatre to the difficulty of finding work outside of the African American experience as a director.
As a professor, she taught at various institutions and received many awards, including four AUDELCO Awards and the Lloyd Richards Award for Directing, among others. She also earned the Scholar Achievement Award from Lehman College of the City University of New York.
Her husband, Donald P. Ryder, died in April 2021. Survivors include three daughters: Lorraine, Natalie, and Gail.
Nathaniel G. Nesmith (he/him) holds an MFA in playwriting and a Ph.D. in theatre from Columbia University.
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