The Performing Arts Department lost another of its lights with the death of Professor Emerita Robbie McCauley on Thursday, May 20, at the age of 79.
McCauley taught theatre at Emerson from 2001 until her retirement in 2013. In addition, she was an acclaimed actor, playwright, director, and academic whose work explored issues of race, class, connection, and living with illness.
“It’s so hard for me to grasp this news because Robbie was such a survivor. She was so strong,” Performing Arts Co-Chair Maureen Shea wrote in a May 21 message to the department announcing McCauley’s death. “Her vulnerability was also her strength, and she was always respectful of and empathic with others’ vulnerabilities. She was the most ‘present’ person and performer I’ve ever known.”
Shea met McCauley in the 1990s, through The Company of Women, an all-woman Shakespeare troupe led by Kristin Linklater, then head of acting at Emerson. In 2000, Shea asked McCauley to apply to Emerson to lead a new concentration in Theatre and Community, which she did in 2001.
Senior Artist-in-Residence Amelia Broome, co-chair of Performing Arts, said she has always been struck by what an intent and present listener McCauley was.
Years ago, at a Company of Women workshop for women and girls, Broome recalled, Linklater asked all the participants to sit in a huge circle and share their different perspectives. McCauley was there with her daughter, Jessie, then only 7 or 8 years old.
“Robbie was listening [to the other participants] so intently, with such compassion. If I had never run across Robbie McCauley again, I would remember that as an example of deep listening and the presence and patience that a human being can have,” Broome said.
Later, as colleagues in the Performing Arts Department, Broome said she would end each Spring Semester by coming into McCauley’s office and debriefing each other on the academic year, how it went, what the work means to each of them. No matter how busy McCauley was, she always greeted Broome with an open door and open ears.
“She would say, ‘When you walk into a room, like acting and teaching, it’s always for the first time,’” Broome said. “We plan and know the body of knowledge we have as teachers is vast… but the idea of coming in prepared and available for what awaits, it was a beautiful thing.”
McCauley was one of the early cast members of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf on Broadway in the 1970s, and performed, wrote, and directed performances in cities across the country and the globe throughout her career. In 1992, she received an Obie Award and a Bessie Award for Outstanding Achievement in Performance for her play, Sally’s Rape, and her work is widely anthologized, including in Extreme Exposure, Moon Marked and Touched by Sun, and Performance and Cultural Politics.
In 2012, ArtsEmerson produced McCauley’s one-woman show, Sugar, about her lifelong struggle with diabetes. That year, Associate Professor Magda Romanska interviewed theatre scholar Harvey Young about McCauley, “the African American experience and the importance of the body, memory and confession.“
Sugar went on to be performed at Brown University, the Hartbeat Ensemble, and at New York Live Arts as part of Lumberyard Contemporary Performing Arts’ city Winter Festival 2018.
This month, McCauley received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Foundation for Art & Healing, which gifted to Emerson a scholarship in her name, the Robbie McCauley Self-Care Award, to go to a Theatre student.
Mirta Tocci, an assistant professor in the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies and a visual artist/designer collaborated with McCauley on her first Emerson production, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, in 2001 in the Brimmer Street Theatre, and the two would go on work together on a number of College productions, including Sugar. The bulk of their collaboration, however, was for the Roxbury Repertory Theatre, where they did one or two productions per year, and became close friends.
“Robbie was a poet, and she entrusted me with creating my own visual poetry for each production, realizing each play in my own way,” Tocci said.
McCauley appreciated that Tocci was a contemporary installation artist, which gave her stage designs a more conceptual feel than a traditional scenic designer might.
“One might think we were an unlikely pair – an African American director and an Argentinian visual artist – but we talked easily and passionately in our own distinct languages to create theatre that was always imaginative, bold, and visually stunning,” Tocci said.
“I’ll miss our work together, but most of all, I’ll miss her great company. She had a limitless vision that invited all of us to think and see ‘big.’”
Kim McLarin, professor and graduate program director in the Writing, Literature and Publishing Department, first knew McCauley not through her work on the stage, but as one of just two Black women tenured faculty at Emerson when McLarin arrived in 2003 (the other was Marlboro Institute Professor Claire Andrade-Watkins).
“I was amazed at how easy she made it look when I knew it was not,” McLarin said. “Not being in the theatre, I didn’t realize until later what a powerhouse writer, actor, and artist she was.
“She was always so kind to me, so generous, and so, so intentional and thoughtful. In my mind’s eye, I see her strolling calmly and elegantly through the chaos of the Tremont/Boylston intersection – for some reason, that’s where we always ran into one another. She’d look up, catch my eye and give me an encouraging smile. She and Claire were the first people I thought of a few weeks ago when I was promoted to full professor; I stand on their shoulders. May her memory be a blessing,” McLarin said.