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Shauneille Perry Ryder, Pioneering Theater Director, Dies at 92

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

Her daughter Lorraine Ryder confirmed the death.

Ms. Perry Ryder, who was known professionally as Shauneille (pronounced shaw-NELL) Perry, 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.

“She was personable with actors, but she put her foot down,” Mr. King said in a phone interview, 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, the critic Mel Gussow wrote that the play “has an inherent honesty, and in Shauneille Perry’s production, the evening is filled with conviction.”

Mr. 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.”

“I was a young, green actor who had chops,” he added, in a phone interview, “but she taught me that acting is physical. The explosion that comes out of me in the second act came together under her direction.”

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.

“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.”

She won at least two Audelco Awards from the Audience Development Committee, which honors Black theater and artists, and in 2019 received the Lloyd Richards Director’s Award from the National Black Theater Festival, in Winston-Salem, N.C., named after the Tony-winning director of many of August Wilson’s plays.

Shauneille Gantt Perry was born on 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 Shauneille’s cousins.

While attending Howard University — where she received a bachelor’s degree in drama in 1950 — Ms. Ryder Perry belonged to a student theater group, the Howard Players, which performed Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck” and 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.

Back in Chicago she began acting — she was in a summer stock play, “Mamba’s Daughters,” with Ethel Waters — while also writing for the 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 the 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 a pregnant young woman (Ms. Perry Ryder) from Alabama strolls into a restaurant looking for the father of her child.

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

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

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

Two years later, she directed “The Sty of the Blind Pig” for the Negro Ensemble Company. In the drama, a blind street singer in 1950s Chicago goes to a house on the South Side looking for a woman he once knew.

Emory Lewis wrote in his review in The Record that Ms. Perry Ryder “had marshaled her actors with loving attention to period detail and nuance.”

Ms. Perry Ryder, left, in 1971 while directing “Black Girl,” a play by J. E. Franklin, right, about three generations of Black women. Produced by the New Federal Theater, it was staged at the Theater de Lys on Christopher Street in Lower Manhattan. Credit…Bert Andrews

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 taught theater and ran the drama program. At Lehman, she staged “Looking Back: The Music of Micki Grant,” a revue based on Ms. Grant’s theatrical works, which include “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope.” She retired in 2001.

In addition to Lorraine Ryder, Ms. Perry Ryder is survived by two other daughters, Gail Perry-Ryder Tigere and Natalie Ryder Redcross, and four grandchildren. Her husband, Donald Ryder, an architect, died in 2021.

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