The Fountain Theatre and the Los Angeles theater community are mourning the death of celebrated director Shirley Jo Finney, who passed away on October 10, 2023 at the age of 74 following an eight-month battle with cancer. The Fountain Theatre, where Finney directed eight productions over the course of a decades-long artistic relationship, will host a memorial service in celebration of Finney’s life and accomplishments at a future date to be announced.
“It shatters my heart beyond expression to announce the passing of my artistic sister,” says Fountain Theatre artistic director Stephen Sachs. “I am deeply, deeply devastated. She was my theatrical soulmate for 26 years.”
Born July 14, 1949 in Merced, CA, Shirley Jo Finney was a multiple award-winning director and actress. She wore her director’s hat in some of the most respected regional theaters across the country, including the Fountain Theatre, LA Theater Works, Pasadena Playhouse and Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles; the Goodman Theater in Chicago; Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.; the McCarter Theater and Crossroads Theatre Company in New Jersey; the Alabama Shakespeare Festival; Cleveland Playhouse; Humana Festival at the Actors Theater of Louisville; and the Sundance Theater Workshop in Park City, Utah.
Her affiliation with the Fountain began in 1997, with her acclaimed production of Endesha Ida Mae Holland’s From the Mississippi Delta, for which the LA Times highlighted her inventive staging. Under her direction, the smash hit world premiere of Stephen Sachs’ spin on L.A’s jazz history, Central Avenue, ran for seven months in 2001. Her Los Angeles premiere of Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for best production, and earned Finney the Beverly Hills/Hollywood NAACP Theatre Award for best director. Her direction of the Fountain’s West Coast premiere of Ifa Bayeza’s daring, folk and gospel-infused The Ballad of Emmett Till in 2010 resulted in an awards sweep: Ovation, Los Angeles Drama Critic’s Circle, NAACP and Backstage Garland awards for production, direction and ensemble. Other directing credits at the Fountain included world premieres of Citizen: An American Lyric by award-winning PENN poet Claudia Rankine and Fountain Theatre artistic director Stephen Sachs; Heart Song, about three friends who discover their inner ‘duende’ through a flamenco class for middle-aged women, also by Sachs; and Runaway Home, a poetic mother-daughter tale set in the wake of Hurricane Katrina by Jeremy J. Kamps, for which Finney received an NAACP Theater Award nomination. She directed Los Angeles premieres of two plays by Tarell Alvin McCraney for the Fountain: In the Red and Brown Water, for which she received Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, Ovation and NAACP awards, and The Brothers Size, for which she garnered a Stage Raw award nomination and a Stage Scene LA “Scenie” award.
She most recently directed Clyde’s by Lynn Nottage at the Ensemble Theatre in Houston, TX, where she had previously directed The Green Book in 2020. Other recent directing credits include the internationally acclaimed South African opera Winnie, based on the life of political icon Winnie Mandela, at the State Theater in Pretoria, South Africa; Facing Our Truth, The Trayvon Martin Project at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Los Angeles; and the Lark Foundation’s rolling world premiere of The Road Weeps by Marcus Gardley at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.
Miss Finney was also an established television and film director. She directed several episodes of Moesha, and she garnered the International Black Filmmakers Award for her short film Remember Me.
She was honored with the UCLA Department of Theater Film and Television Distinguished Alumni Award, the Black Alumni Associations Dr. Beverly Robinson Award for Excellence in the Arts, and the African American Film Marketplace Award of Achievement for Outstanding Performance and Achievement and Leader in Entertainment.
An accomplished actress with many television and film credits, she was best known for her portrayal in the historic title role of Wilma Rudolph, the first female three-time gold medalist in the made-for-TV bio picture Wilma.
Miss Finney was an alumnus of the American Film Institute’s Director Workshop for Women and held an M.F.A. degree from UCLA. She was a member of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, the Director’s Guild, and the Screen Actor’s Guild. She was an artist-in-residence at several colleges and universities, including Columbia College in Chicago, UC Santa Barbara, USC and UCLA.