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Shauneille Perry Ryder, pioneering theater director, dies at 92

Ms. Perry Ryder was most known for her direction of plays at the New Federal Theater in New York City.TOM MADDEN/NYT

Shauneille Perry Ryder, an actor, playwright, and educator who was one of the first Black women to direct plays off-Broadway, most notably for the New Federal Theater in New York City, died June 9 at her home in New Rochelle, N.Y. She was 92.

Her daughter Lorraine confirmed the death.

Known professionally as Shauneille Perry, she directed 17 plays at the New Federal Theater from 1971 to 2006, each a part of the company’s mission to integrate artists of color and women into mainstream American theater. The theater, founded in 1970 by Woodie King Jr. in Lower Manhattan and now housed on West 42nd Street, has been a mecca for Black actors and directors.

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“She was personable with actors, but she put her foot down,” King said, referring to her attention to detail. “I’m so glad she worked with New Federal. She gave us a great reputation. In our first 10 years, we had a hit each year, and at least three or four were directed by Shauneille Perry.”

In 1982, she directed Rob Penny’s “Who Loves the Dancer,” about a young Black man (played by Giancarlo Esposito) growing up in 1950s Philadelphia who dreams of becoming a dancer but who is trapped by his mother’s expectations, his environment, and racism.

In The New York Times, critic Mel Gussow wrote that the play “has an inherent honesty, and in Shauneille Perry’s production, the evening is filled with conviction.”

Esposito, who had been directed earlier that year by Ms. Perry Ryder in another play, “Keyboard,” at the New Federal, recalled her “very intuitive expression of how a story should be told, particularly a Black story.”

Ms. Perry Ryder also directed Phillip Hayes Dean’s “Paul Robeson,” which traces the life of the titular singer and social crusader; “Jamimma,” by Martie Evans-Charles, about a young woman who changes her name because of its connection to servility and who is devoted to a man who she is told will never do much more than “wear rags or play instruments”; and “Black Girl,” by J.E. Franklin, about three generations of Black women, including a teenager who yearns to dance.

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“If you’re Black, you know about these people in any city,” Ms. Perry Ryder told the Times in 1971, referring to the characters in “Black Girl.” “We are all a part of each other.”

In 2019, she received the Lloyd Richards Director’s Award from the National Black Theater Festival, in North Carolina, named after the Tony-winning director of many of August Wilson’s plays.

Shauneille Gantt Perry was born July 26, 1929, in Chicago. Her father, Graham, was one of the first Black assistant attorneys general in Illinois; her mother, Pearl (Gantt) Perry, was a pioneering Black court reporter in Chicago. Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote “A Raisin the Sun,” was one of Ms. Perry Ryder’s cousins.

While attending Howard University — where she received a bachelor’s degree in drama in 1950 — Ms. Perry Ryder belonged to a student theater group, the Howard Players, which performed Henrik Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck” and August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” on a tour of Scandinavia at the invitation of the Norwegian government. “We were the only Black company to tour those marvelous countries,” she told The Record of Hackensack, N.J., in 1971.

She earned a master of fine arts degree in 1952 at the Goodman School of Drama at the Art Institute of Chicago (now a part of DePaul University). As a Fulbright scholar in 1954, she studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Dissatisfied with the curriculum, however (“they were always doing ‘Cleopatra,’” she said), she transferred to the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art.

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Back in Chicago, she began acting while writing for Black newspaper The Chicago Defender. In 1959, while on a trip to Paris that she had won through an Ebony magazine essay contest, she met author Richard Wright, who, she recalled, asked her, “They still lynching people back in the states?”

“I remember telling him, ‘They do it a little differently there today,’” she told the Times in 1971. But the next day she read about a Black man who had been accused of rape and taken forcibly to a jail cell; his body was later found floating in a river. “I kept wondering to myself,” she said, “‘What is that man saying about my analysis of things?’”

And she wondered what she would do when she got home.

At first she continued acting. She appeared in various off-Broadway plays, including Josh Greenfeld’s “Clandestine on the Morning Line” (1961), with James Earl Jones, in which her character, a pregnant young woman from Alabama, strolls into a restaurant looking for the father of her child.

Edith Oliver, reviewing the play in The New Yorker, wrote that Ms. Perry Ryder gave her role “such quiet, innocent strength and apparent unawareness of the character’s pathos that we almost forget it, too.”

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Frustrated with the roles she was offered, however, Ms. Perry Ryder turned to directing, first at the Negro Ensemble Company in New York, with a workshop production of Franklin’s “Mau Mau Room.”

“I got the feeling that maybe there’s a place for me,” she told the Times.

Her theater work continued for more than 40 years, including writing and directing “Things of the Heart: Marian Anderson’s Story,” about the brilliant Black contralto; directing and rewriting the book for a 1999 revival of “In Dahomey,” the first Broadway musical, originally staged in 1903, written by African Americans; and writing a soap opera for a Black radio station in New York City.

In 1986, Ms. Perry Ryder joined the faculty of Lehman College in the Bronx, where she ran the drama program. At Lehman, she staged “Looking Back: The Music of Micki Grant,” a revue based on Grant’s theatrical works, which include “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope.” She retired in 2001.

In addition to her daughter Lorraine, she leaves two other daughters, Gail Perry-Ryder Tigere and Natalie Ryder Redcross, and four grandchildren. Her husband, Donald Ryder, an architect, died in 2021.