Dr. Shirley Basfield Dunlap, a theatrical director who taught at Morgan State University, died of heart failure June 15 at her Northwest Baltimore home. She was 67.
Born in the South Bronx in New York City, she was the daughter of John Basfield, a longshoreman, and his wife, Hilda, a New York City social worker. After graduating from Morris High School, she earned a degree at Morgan State University and joined its faculty after getting a master’s degree at the University of Cincinnati.
She earned a doctorate at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her dissertation was titled “The Oral History Project of African American Stage Directors of American Theatre.” Colleagues said she tracked down pioneering Black theater directors in the 1970s and recorded their life stories.
Dr. Dunlap was coordinator of theatre arts and associate professor of fine and performing arts at Morgan.
“Shirley was infectious with her spirit,” said her companion, Cheryl J. Williams. “She touched you. She was open and giving, and she did things for other people without being asked.”
Ms. Williams also said: “Shirley spoke her mind. She was lovingly tough. As a director, she could get the best performances from her actors.”
Dr. Dunlap was a member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society and a board member of the National Theatre Conference, which meets at The Players, a New York City club at Gramercy Park.
She also belonged to the August Wilson Society and the National Black Theatre Network. She tapped actor Roscoe Orman, who played in Sesame Street for many years, for a role in the Wilson play “Jitney” about Black taxi hacks she directed at Morgan.
Dr. Dunlap was an associate professor at Iowa State University from 1995 to 2002. She also had taught at Towson University.
She was quoted in The Baltimore Sun in 2008 when Center Stage put on a performance of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” with two Black leading men.
“When we ignore [race], we’re not being honest to ourselves,” she said “When people say, `I don’t see color.' I think that’s a cute little liberal tone, but it’s not adding to the whole issue of America not being a melting pot anymore but a salad bar. I do want color. I want a little tomato, a little lettuce, a little of this and that.”
In 2018 she directed “Red Velvet” at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in downtown Baltimore.
Lesley Melin, Chesapeake’s managing director, said: “It was a beautiful production and Shirley was a pleasure to work with. All the actors adored her.”
The play she directed, “Red Velvet,” was about Ira Aldridge, a New York-born African American who became celebrated in Europe in the 19th century.
“The most wonderful thing about ‘Red Velvet’ is that it offers a slice of history that a lot of people just are not aware of, and probably wouldn’t experience otherwise,” Dr. Dunlap said in a 2018 Sun story.
The drama was set in 1833 at London’s Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, where audiences for the first time saw a Black man perform the title role of “Othello” rather than a white one in blackface.
“I think people will go home thinking ‘This play takes place in the 1800s but, wow, I still see the same issues and concerns today.’ We are not so far removed from the racial issues in this play,” Dr. Dunlap said in the Sun story.
Chesapeake’s artistic director, Ian Gallanar said: “Shirley was from the South Bronx and Shirley would tell people exactly what she thought. She didn’t hold back. I liked her very much as a friend and colleague.”
Dr. Dunlap also directed at regional theaters, including Milwaukee Rep, Madison Rep, Dallas Theatre Center, Delaware Theatre Company, the Human Race Theatre, Buffalo Studio Arena and the Hippodrome Theatre in Gainesville, Florida.
Dr. Dunlap was named a finalist in 2018 Broadway World’s annual awards for best director in a regional play for “Red Velvet.”
She was invited by a Swedish theater organization, Intercult, for a workshop on American and Nordic female writers.
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At the workshop, Dr. Dunlap spoke on Ntozake Shange’s play, “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf” and Spell #7.
She had also directed the play with women of the African diaspora for New Nordic Voices, Denmark’s global theatre/artistic organization. Her production toured in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Austria.
A statement from Morgan State University said that during her directing career she worked with Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Alton Fitzgerald White and Melba Moore.
A memorial will be held at 11 a.m. July 18 at Union Baptist Church, 1219 Druid Hill Ave., where she was a member and worked with its youth group.
A memorial fund has been created in her name at the Morgan State University Foundation.