In her solo show “Sugar,” Robbie McCauley drew from her own lifetime of coping with diabetes, and used the disease as a way to look at race in America, including the health care disparities that had led to her delayed diagnosis.
While performing the piece, which she had written, in the Paramount Center’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box in Boston, she would pause to measure her blood sugar — a medical necessity, she said. During some performances the reading prompted her to take a shot of insulin on stage. Other times, she had a bite to eat if the reading was too low.
“It’s an improvisational moment,” she said told the Globe in 2013. “Many, many people know diabetics, but we’re talking about breaking the silence. Many people appreciate being let in on a process that even their relatives may not have shared with them.”
Ms. McCauley, an award-winning performer and writer whose work repeatedly shattered the silence about issues such as race, illness, and sex, was 78 when she died Thursday in Silver Spring, Md.
She had been living there with her sister, Anita Henderson, and her family told The New York Times that Ms. McCauley died of congestive heart failure.
“Sugar is complicated, like love, full of pleasure and pain,” Ms. McCauley said during her play, which was presented by ArtsEmerson and accompanied by music from the pianist and composer Chauncey Moore. “It’s complicated, gives you energy, and can eat you up from the inside out.”
In a Globe interview during the play’s 2012 run, she recalled that her “official diagnosis didn’t happen until I was in my early 20s, but I realized all my life that something was off in my body. And as I look back, there were small symptoms that might have been called pre-diabetes. I was very thin, which is a symptom of juvenile diabetes. So there were resonances of it in my body at a very early age.”
Ms. McCauley was a professor emerita at Emerson College, where she taught theater from 2001 until she retired in 2013.
“Robbie was such a survivor. She was so strong,” Maureen Shea, who cochairs the school’s performing arts department and was a longtime friend and collaborator, wrote in a tribute posted on Emerson’s website.
“Her vulnerability was also her strength, and she was always respectful of and empathic with others’ vulnerabilities,” Shea wrote. “She was the most ‘present’ person and performer I’ve ever known.”
Shea praised Ms. McCauley’s “worldview and storytelling — all personal stories with political impact in the language of theatre, meditations woven together like tapestries on family, health, education, love, class, and race.
Early in Ms. McCauley’s career, she was part of the cast in Ntozake Shange’s 1976 Broadway show “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf.”
The play drew on the experience of her great-great-grandmother, who had been raped by a plantation owner in the South, and was inspired in part by a phrase Ms. McCauley heard at mealtime while growing up: “Sally had two children by the master.”
Yet Ms. McCauley wanted to weave her family’s history into the larger tapestry of race relations through the generations.
“If I’m being personal, it doesn’t work — unless I connect with larger concerns,” she told writer Lynne Tillman in 1992. “I’m not interested in just my biography. I’m very much interested in how what is personal to me connects to other people. That makes it strong for me.”
As she performed the piece in New York City with Jeannie Hutchins, a white woman, their dialogue on race and other topics led to a searing conclusion in which Ms. McCauley stood naked on an auction block.
Hutchins called out to those in a visibly uncomfortable and often predominantly white audience, encouraging them to join in the slave auctioneer’s chant, “Bid ‘em in,” while Ms. McCauley stood describing what Sally’s white master had done to her.
But even in such a brutal, personal scene, Ms. McCauley told the Globe in 1993. “I’m using the stories to look at larger issues.”
Born in Norfolk, Va., on July 14, 1942, Robbie Doris McCauley graduated from Howard University in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree and later received a master’s from New York University.
Heading to New York City in the late 1960s, she was an apprentice with the Negro Ensemble Company.
In a Globe interview, she recalled the difficulties women of color encountered as they sought roles, only to be pushed aside by directors and producers who told them: “You’re too light. You’re too dark. You’re too ethnic.”
About three decades ago, Ms. McCauley began working with those outside of the theater world to tell stories about race, traveling to places such as Boston, Buffalo, Los Angeles, and Mississippi to stage productions that drew from local events.
To create distinctly local performances, the actors first conducted interviews with area residents. In Boston, that meant having conversations about race with those who had lived through school desegregation and busing.
While they spoke with residents in city neighborhoods while preparing the production “Turf” for the Boston Center for the Arts in spring 1993, “people said it was a great relief to talk about it, even though it’s charged and painful,” Ms. McCauley told the Globe before the performances began. “Sometimes they had to stop the interview and begin again the next day.”
In the shows themselves, actors improvised with audience members, who were encouraged to participate.
“We open up our dialogue to the audience,” Ms. McCauley told the Globe. “We give the audience permission and comfort to talk.”
After arriving at Emerson, where she became the first Black person to receive tenure without a lawsuit, Ms. McCauley directed contemporary versions of staples such as Reginald Rose’s “12 Angry Men.”
Her version, staged at Roxbury Community College in 2004, was retitled “12 Angry Jurors” and included women and people of color, rather than the original’s dozen white men. The diversity added nuance to the jurors’ disagreements.
“The anger is expressed, I find, in different ways — the expectations around fighting,” Ms. McCauley told the Globe just before the production began.
“What happens when there’s a possibility of violence between a Black and white person? And then add gender,” she said.
Rather than set the production in the 1950s of the original play and the movie it inspired, she placed it in Boston’s racially fraught 1970s.
“I’m finding that one of the dilemmas that is Boston is how diverse a population it is and the tension around that, and the sparks of contact that must happen here because it is essentially a small town full of different cultures and classes of people,” Ms. McCauley said. “This play is almost a metaphor for that.”
Complete information about survivors and a memorial service was not immediately available. According to her family’s information on a funeral home website, Ms. McCauley formerly was married to Edward Montgomery, and also leaves her sister, Anita Henderson, and her daughter, the composer and violinist Jessie Montgomery.
In her tribute, Shea wrote that this month, the Foundation for Art & Healing had given Ms. McCauley a lifetime achievement award and had given Emerson the gift of a scholarship for a theater student, to be called the Robbie McCauley Self Care Award.
Through her work, Ms. McCauley had consistently brought to the forefront conversations that many might otherwise try to avoid.
“There is a dangerous silence around race,” she told the Globe in 1993. “There’s no dialogue. Racism exists, but there’s a sense that if we don’t discuss it, it will go away.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.