“Now, Daniel…”

That’s how Robbie McCauley would answer the phone when I would call her. All at once her voice evoked the South of her origin and upbringing, the sonority of the multiple musics of the Lower East Side where she lived and worked for decades, and the piercing clarity of someone who knows from lived experience that words have incalculable power. “Now…” would be followed by some pointed observation about what was going on in the world. “Now… you know we’ve been here before…” or “Now… the thing to look out for is when they…” or during the height of the Trump Administration, “Now… you know if this was a play we’d say the writing is terrible…” What she said was always said in a familiar rhythm, suffused with knowing laughter and her distinctive brilliance. That “now…” brought a smile to my face each time. Because I loved hearing Robbie testify. And I loved even more the sense that we were just picking up the thread of a conversation that would only pause, never end.

Robbie McCauley died Thursday, May 20th. She had a long association with Penumbra and contributed to its freedom code through her bold, uncompromising, and scrupulously honest work. In the early 1990s Robbie directed Shay Youngblood’s plays Shakin’ The Mess Outta Misery followed by Talking Bones (in which I had my first acting role at Penumbra); she created The Underground Project, a devised piece featuring a group of local citizens who told the histories of cultural intersection, erasure, and resistance in the Twin Cities; she played Rose alongside Lou Bellamy in the revival of Fences; and she directed Adrienne Kennedy’s Sleep Deprivation Chamber. Perhaps her most impactful, and controversial experience was the run of her Obie-award winning play, Sally’s Rape, which she performed for a month alongside Jeannie Hutchins. That piece presciently interrogated the relationship between Black feminists and white feminists through a searingly intimate conversation between Robbie and Jeannie, and confronted audiences with truths about race, power, and privilege that, at the time, many did not want to mention, let alone face. At the conclusion of the piece, Robbie strips naked and stands
atop an auction block to claim her family history and demonstrate its ineluctable relationship to her every contemporary breath as a Black woman. Robbie was the bravest artist I ever met.

Her career was singular. From Howard University to the Negro Ensemble Company, from the Public Theater to Broadway, from Off-Broadway to most states in the nation, from avant-garde performance art to August Wilson, Robbie McCauley created roles in plays by Ed Bullins and Adrienne Kennedy, worked closely with the likes of Ntozake Shange (Robbie played the Lady in Red in for colored girls… on Broadway when Trazana Beverly left), Joseph Chaikin, Gloria Foster, and Samuel L. Jackson; and, famously, created Thought Music with her art-sisters, Laurie Carlos and Jessica Hagedorn. She was a life changing teacher, a professor emerita at Emerson College in Boston. And she was a beloved mentor to so many artists who had connections to Penumbra including Jake-ann Jones, Sharon Bridgforth, Carl Hancock Rux, and myself. Robbie’s remarkable body of performance pieces and plays will be featured in a book to be published by TCG this fall. It is a great sadness that she did not live to see the book celebrated publicly. 

Robbie incurred the wrath of many critics because of her unflinching work, her refusal to pander, her faith in her audiences’ intelligence, and her willingness to privilege genuine complexity over false resolution. She was unapologetic in her feminism, her incisive critiques of politics, economics, and the arts. And she challenged those she worked with, often in unexpected and disarming ways, to confront their biases, secrets, and shadow sides. Throughout, she remained profoundly committed to humanity. She always said “yes” when invited, bringing her trademark dignity, poise, and open eyes to every situation. She worked sometimes in volatile situations and was a pioneer of documentary theatre. She loved actors and was just as interested if not more so in celebrating the work of the actors she directed in the community theatre in Boston as she was in the high-profile work of her professional peers. Her humility and her kindness marked all her interactions. Even when confronting the most dangerous situations, Robbie stood with both feet on the ground, her clear eyes fixed straight ahead, and her breath at the ready.

Her breath. Her voice. Her heart. Her spine. Her vision. Her...


Her presence. That’s what we’ll remember most vividly. Her presence. Robbie was always fully present. She was here. Now.

Now I will call your name out loud, Robbie. No more phones. But I will still hear you. Paused, not ended, but resonating. “Now, Daniel…” your voice humming across time. Yes, Robbie. “Now…”

I join the Penumbra family in extending our heartfelt condolences to Robbie’s brilliant daughter, composer Jessie Montgomery, to her ex-husband, Ed Montgomery, to her sister Anita, to her extended family, to Jessica Hagedorn, and to all who knew and loved Robbie McCauley.

-Daniel Alexander Jones
Robbie McCauley
Robbie McCauley
"Robbie was the bravest artist I ever met."
- Daniel Alexander Jones
Penumbra Theatre
270 N. Kent St.
St. Paul, MN 55102

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