Robbie McCauley, a efficiency artist, author and director who typically put race at the middle of performs and different works that sought to change views and foster dialogue, died on Thursday in Silver Spring, Md., the place she had been dwelling together with her sister, Anita Henderson. She was 78.
Her household mentioned the trigger was congestive coronary heart failure.
Ms. McCauley’s résumé included reimagining basic American performs by way of various casting and a stint within the ensemble of Ntozake Shange’s groundbreaking 1976 Broadway present, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf.” But she was finest identified for reveals she wrote and carried out at venues just like the Kitchen in Manhattan and Franklin Furnace in Brooklyn, wherein she used her household and private tales to confront common points.
“My Father and the Wars,” first carried out within the mid-1980s, drew on her father’s time within the army, and on her relationship with him. “Sugar,” considered one of her most up-to-date items, used her expertise as a diabetic — she would take an insulin shot onstage — to look at the historical past and racial facets of the illness, in addition to Black individuals’s lengthy mistrust of the medical system.
Her most well-known, and possibly most searing, work was “Sally’s Rape,” whose title refers to her great-great-grandmother. The piece, first carried out at P.S. 122 in New York, started with Ms. McCauley and her performing companion, Jeannie Hutchins, a white lady, exchanging ideas on race, their upbringings and different topics, then constructed to an unsettling scene wherein Ms. McCauley stood bare on an public sale block whereas Ms. Hutchins goaded the viewers into becoming a member of within the auctioneer’s slave-auction chant “Bid ’em in” — successfully turning the tables on the viewers, particularly its white members, confronting them with the discomfort of historical past.
“Robbie McCauley was the bravest artist I ever met,” the theater artist Daniel Alexander Jones said by email. “Her practice was to enter highly charged spaces, take hold of third-rail subjects, breathe deeply, and then speak the seemingly unutterable in public. She often said to me, ‘Find a way to house the contradictions rather than resolve them.’”
And yet even in a work as uncompromising as “Sally’s Rape” Ms. McCauley was most interested in fostering dialogue, especially about subjects that people didn’t want to talk about.
“Her work was all about getting past that,” the writer Cynthia Carr, a longtime friend, said in a phone interview. “It wasn’t about judging so much as, ‘Let’s talk about this and let’s get the truth out there.’”
Ms. Carr had firsthand experience with the McCauley doctrine. She said Ms. McCauley may have been the first person she told a secret that she had harbored since learning it as a teenager: that a grandfather of hers had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana. She had been reluctant to share such a thing with anyone, especially a Black friend, Ms. Carr said, but Ms. McCauley welcomed the revelation when they finally had the conversation in the early 1990s.
“Robbie said to me, ‘Those are the stories we need to hear that white people aren’t telling,’” she recalled.
“It’s like any relationship,” she said. “If you keep things hidden, there’s only so far you can go.”
Robbie Doris McCauley was born on July 14, 1942, in Norfolk, Va. Her father, Robert, was a career military man, and her mother, Alice (Borders) McCauley, was a federal employee.
She received a bachelor’s degree from Howard University in 1963 and later a master’s from New York University. She had made her way to New York after graduating from Howard, finding work with the Negro Ensemble Company and in avant-garde theater. Appearing in “For Colored Girls,” she said, pushed her to start telling her own stories.
In the late 1980s she joined with Laurie Carlos (another “For Colored Girls” alumna) and Jessica Hagedorn to form Thought Music, a performance-art group. Their work included “Teenytown,” presented at Franklin Furnace in 1988. It looked at race in popular culture through the format of a fast-paced minstrel show.
“I think what I most admired about her as an artist was her honesty and fearlessness and courage,” Ms. Hagedorn said of Ms. McCauley in a phone interview. “Her willingness to take a risk.”
Many of the racial themes she was broaching 30 years ago anticipated today’s race-related debates.
“She was so ahead of it,” Ms. Hagedorn said.
Ms. McCauley also helped people find and tell their own stories. In 1990 she wrote and directed “The Buffalo Project,” working with local residents and artists in Buffalo to create a site-specific performance that revisited that city’s race-related riots in 1967. In a series of multimedia performances produced by the Arts Company from 1990 to 1994, she worked with residents in Mississippi, Los Angeles and Boston to examine the history of voting rights, desegregation, the Black Panthers and other subjects.
“She believed in people’s capacity for liberation,” Mr. Jones said, “and knew her gift as a performer was to demonstrate in real time that we can in fact face traumatic histories, move testimonies through our bodies, and remember our whole being in community with others. Our nation is starving for the kinds of courageous conversation that Robbie and her work engendered.”
Ms. McCauley taught at various colleges over the years, including Emerson College in Boston from 2001 until her retirement in 2013.
At nearby Roxbury Community College some 15 years ago, she and Marshall Hughes reimagined American classics. Reginald Rose’s “Twelve Angry Men” became “Twelve Angry Jurors,” with the jurors no longer all being white men. Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” took on new elements of race and class when the Stanley Kowalski character was played by a Black actor. “The Crucible,” Arthur Miller’s play about the Salem witch trials, was staged to emphasize the character of Tituba, a slave from Barbados.
“We are not reinterpreting the play,” she told The Boston Banner in 2007, when “The Crucible” was staged. “We are looking for larger possibilities by extending our imaginations.”
Ms. McCauley married Edward Montgomery in 1979. Though they divorced in 1996, they remained close. In addition to her sister, she is survived by her daughter, the composer Jessie Montgomery.
Ms. McCauley had in recent years been performing “Sugar,” the play about diabetes, in the hope of promoting the sort of dialogue about the disease that she had fostered about race with her earlier works.
“Many, many people know diabetics, but we’re talking about breaking the silence,” she wrote in The Boston Globe in 2013. “Many people appreciate being let in on a process that even their relatives may not have shared with them.”
Years earlier, in a 1999 interview with The Hartford Courant, she had spoken about her goals with all of her works.
“My basic hope is simple,” she said. “It’s that people might be able to have a good time with material that’s charged and uncomfortable.”