Remembering Sheila Ramsey’s life in the arts

Ramsey ‘a committed advocate for the African-American voice in American theater.’

It's going to be difficult imagining the local arts scene without Sheila Ramsey, the powerhouse actor, director, producer, educator, and arts advocate who passed away at age 68 on Thursday, June 28, after an illness.

>> OBITUARY: Sheila Ramsey of Dayton, a legend in local theater

In addition to being the first African-American member of the Dayton Theatre Hall of Fame, Ramsey co-founded the poetry-driven troupe Creative Energy, directed many shows at Colonel White High School, was a founding member of the Human Race Theatre Company and Muse Machine, taught theatre studies at Wright State, performed at the Human Race among other Midwest venues, and was twice selected as the recipient of the Montgomery County Arts and Cultural District’s individual artist fellowship.

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Expectations were always high when the curtain went up on a Ramsey production.

You knew you would be participating in an experience rather than merely watching a performance. After all, she ensured actors approached scripts with visceral, language-driven intent, fully aware that communication and interactions were a key component to building a solid foundation of realism.

>> Sheila Ramsey among the 2017 inductees into the Dayton Theatre Hall of Fame

Her shows were not necessarily flashy, but they were always memorable and often packed an emotional punch. Some of her finest work stemmed from the acclaimed canon of August Wilson, specifically his exhilarating dramas “Fences” (Wright State University), “Jitney” (Human Race Theatre Company) and “The Piano Lesson” (Wright State University).

When Ramsey momentously decided to venture on her own and create Dream Keeper Theatre, it wasn't a surprise considering she had always championed African-American playwrights and performers. Looking back, it was a valiant and purposeful effort because she recognized a need in this city that only she could fill. Having been inspired by Ntozake Shange's drama "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf," she wanted to provide an outlet that would elevate the African-American experience in all its complexities. In many ways, Dream Keeper Theatre was ahead of its time, but the company left an indelible impression, especially providing audiences an outstanding local premiere of Dael Orlandersmith's Pulitzer Prize-nominated drama "Yellowman," one of the best shows ever produced in the Schuster Center's Mathile Theatre.

Still, it’s important to note her directorial credits also contained wonderful diversity outside the African-American framework. In fact, she was equally comfortable in the distinctly masculine-driven worlds of Neil Simon (“Biloxi Blues” at Wright State), Bernard Pomerance (“The Elephant Man” at Wright State) and Dale Wasserman (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” at Wright State).

"Sheila A. Ramsey was a committed advocate for the African-American voice in American theater," noted her dear friend and fellow Human Race founding member Michael Kenwood Lippert. "She was a gifted artist, a natural teacher, and the source of so much love and laughter. Sheila embraced me as her brother from the moment we met in 1980. We created, we taught, and oh how we laughed! She is my sister. She is my best friend. She lives in my heart forever."

A service celebrating Ramsey’s life will be held Saturday, July 7, at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church. Contributions may be made to The Muse Machine, 126 N. Main St, Suite 310, Dayton, OH, 45402 or Echoing Valley Residential Center, 7040 Union Schoolhouse Road, Dayton, OH, 45424.

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