By Alexis Taylor
Special to the AFRO
Baltimore and the theatre world at-large is mourning the death of Dr. Shirley Basfield Dunlap, legendary stage director, producer and professor at Morgan State University (MSU).
News of the passing came to former students and coworkers late Monday night and immediately sparked an outpouring of love for the fiery spirit that shaped countless Black actors, directors, writers, and theatre techs.
“Dr. Dunlap created a safe haven for young Black artists to create and grow on our own terms,” said Grant Emerson Harvey, now the director of student and faculty affairs at the Atlantic Acting School in New York City. “She was hard on us because she knew we had to be the phenomenal, well-equipped minority in order to make it in an industry dominated by the majority.”
Harvey told the AFRO that Dunlap, 67, was a constant pillar of support that gave Black thespians the skill set to “show up in the industry and be heard, be seen and never denied.” She was also a firm believer in having “as many tools as possible in your tool box.”
“I started at Morgan State University wanting to be a star,” said Harvey, “but instead she taught me how to build the constellation, become the astronomer, and center myself on the map wherever I please.”
Dr. Dunlap hailed from the South Bronx of New York City. Throughout her career she directed the likes of Ossie Davis and Roscoe Orman, and commanded the helm of innumerable theatrical productions across the country, including “Fences,” “Sarafina!,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
Dunlap was a member of Morgan State’s class of 1974 and a pioneer of the institution’s theatre department. Her service to the students of Morgan spanned over thirty years. A brief hiatus from the historically black university included associate professorships of theatre at Iowa State University and Towson University. She returned in 2004, and was still coordinator of the theatre arts program and an associate professor at the time of her death.
In 2018, after taking one class a semester at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County for nine years, Dunlap added a doctoral degree to her list of accomplishments after defending her dissertation, the Oral History Project of African American Stage Directors in American Theatre. She told UMBC the trek towards her goal taught her “perseverance.” The same year, she was also inducted into the National Theatre Conference.
Dunlap’s tenure at MSU undoubtedly changed the path of many artists in the Black theatre community.
“Dr. Shirley Basfield Dunlap saved my life,” said Carol Alana Simon, who became a student of Dunlap in 2008. “She told me I was not moving back to Brooklyn upon graduation. She said ‘you’re going to graduate school,’ and I simply said ‘okay.’’’
A bootcamp of sorts commenced. Every day Simon would present application materials to Dunlap for careful review. “All six universities I applied to requested a meeting and she immediately cancelled classes and planned our trip to NYC.”
Simon fondly remembers the moments before her interview for California Institute of the Arts. “Ms. Dunlap stood right there in front of the door, prayed with me, and waited until the interview was over.”
“She was more than my professor and mentor…she was and still is my mom.”
“This woman expected nothing but excellence and I was smart enough to never tell her ‘no.’ If she fussed at you -believe that she cared. If she was quiet and only smiled, be worried.”
Simon, now an actress and producer in Los Angeles, echoed sentiments expressed around the country, as Dunlap’s proteges reminisced and acknowledged her impact.
“She believed Black people should be in charge of telling our own stories,” said Shavon Smith, founder of Grounded Theatre Company in Philadelphia. “Dr. Dunlap inspired me to not only work hard, but to strive to do my own thing in theatre. She was the inspiration in me starting my own theatre company.”
From Broadway to television and local community theatre, Dunlap’s influence through her students has been a catalyst for change.
“Dr. Shirley Basfield Dunlap is the first person who sat me down and explained to me the significance of capitalizing the “B” in Black when referring to our heritage as a people,” Keyinta Boyd told the AFRO. “She explained that we are a people, strong, resilient and free.”
“Only people who care about you, will correct you,” Dunlap told Boyd. “She demanded excellence, consistency, commitment, and discipline. This was the recipe that would set you apart from any other talented being.”
Boyd is co-founder and executive director of Artistic Laborers in Visual Exaltation (A.L.I.V.E), a Baltimore-based community arts non-profit organization. She credits Dunlap for her ability to make change through theatre.
“I knew how to advocate for not just myself, but also the youth of Baltimore City,” said Boyd. “The foundation and love she instilled gave me the tools needed to serve the youth of Baltimore. For that, Dr. Dunlap has touched the hearts of children she’s never even met.”
“Wow, what a Black woman.”