‘Wilma’ Star and Theater Director Was 74

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Shirley Jo Finney, a theater director and actor known for the 1975 TV biopic “Wilma,” died on Oct. 10 following an eight-month battle with cancer. She was 74.

The Fountain Theatre announced the news of Finney’s death in a statement on Friday.

“It shatters my heart beyond expression to announce the passing of my artistic sister,” said Stephen Sachs, artistic director of the Fountain Theatre. “I am deeply, deeply devastated. She was my theatrical soulmate for 26 years.”

Finney directed eight productions over many years at the Fountain Theatre, including Endesha Ida Mae Holland’s “From the Mississippi Delta”; Stephen Sachs’ “Central Avenue”; Dael Orlandersmith’s “Yellowman”; Ifa Bayeza’s “The Ballad of Emmett Till”; Claudia Rankin and Stephen Sachs’ “Citizen: An American Lyric”; and Jeremy J. Kamps’ “Runaway Home,” among other titles. Finney and her productions received several accolades, including the Beverly Hills/Hollywood NAACP Theatre Award for best director for “Yellowman.” “The Ballad of Emmett Till” won awards for Ovation, Los Angeles Drama Critic’s Circle, NAACP and Backstage Garland awards for production, direction and ensemble.

Finney’s most recent project was directing Lynn Nottage’s “Clyde’s” at the Ensemble Theatre in Houston.

Beyond the stage, Finney also worked behind and in front of the camera for television and film. She was best known for portraying the title role in 1975’s “Wilma,” a made-for-television biopic about the first three-time female gold medalist Wilma Rudolph. Directed and written by Bud Greenspan, the TV movie also starred Cicely Tyson, Jason Bernard, Joe Seneca and Denzel Washington.

Finney directed multiple episodes of the sitcom “Moesha” starring Brandy, and won the International Black Filmmakers Award for her short film “Remember Me.”

Born in 1949 in Merced, Calif., she attended the American Film Institute’s Director Workshop for Women and received an MFA from UCLA. Additionally, she was an artist-in-residence at multiple schools including Columbia College in Chicago, UC Santa Barbara, USC and UCLA.

In addition to the Fountain Theatre, Finney directed productions at LA Theater Works, Pasadena Playhouse, Mark Taper Forum, the Goodman Theater in Chicago, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., the McCarter Theater and Crossroads Theatre Company in New Jersey and several other venues across the U.S.

Throughout her career, Finney was extolled with many honors including the UCLA Department of Theater Film and Television Distinguished Alumni Award, the Black Alumni Associations Dr. Beverly Robinson Award for Excellence in the Arts, and the African American Film Marketplace Award of Achievement for Outstanding Performance and Achievement and Leader in Entertainment.

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