Shay Youngblood (Dominica) — influential author and playwright, dies at 64


July 3, 2024


Shay Youngblood

Shay Youngblood (Dominica 1981-83), a novelist and playwright whose works about her upbringing by a churchgoing cohort of “Big Mamas” and her adventures in Paris as a young aspiring writer inspired a generation of young Black women, died on June 11 at the home of a friend, Kelley Alexander, in Peachtree City, Ga. She was 64.

Ms. Alexander said the cause was ovarian cancer.

Ms. Youngblood, whose mother died when she was 2 years old and whose father was not in her life, grew up in a housing project in Columbus, Ga., where she raised by her maternal grandmother and great-grandmother, along with a close circle of eccentric and adoring maternal stand-ins.

The Big Mamas — stoic, arthritic and wise — had much to impart to the young Shay: their dim view of most men; their love of music, dancing and church; their often bawdy humor; their dignified, powerful resistance to the indignities and horrors visited upon them by the racist white employers for whom they worked as maids.

Ms. Youngblood said that she prayed often for her mother to return, but that as she grew older, she appreciated the richness of her upbringing and turned the experience into her first book, “The Big Mama Stories” (1989), which before being published was adapted into her first play, “Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery.” First produced by the Horizon Theater Company in Atlanta in 1988, it has since been staged all over the world, in schools and local theaters.

“The simple act of centering on the stories of Black women, with barely any references to the men (white or Black) in their lives, is itself an act of resistance,” Kerry Reid wrote in a review for The Chicago Tribune when “Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery” was produced in Chicago in 2017, 20 years after its first staging there. “And the women we meet in Youngblood’s unapologetically fierce, funny and ultimately hopeful memory-play-with-music might make you want to jump up at the curtain call and ask all of them to run for office.”

Lisa Adler, Horizon’s longtime co-artistic director, recalled that when Ms. Youngblood gave her the play in its original raw form in the early 1980s, when they were both in their early 20s, she thought: “This isn’t quite a play, but it’s something. I’ve got to do something!” She convened the director Glenda Dickerson and the dramaturgs Gayle Austin and Isabelle Bagshaw, and together they shaped the work.

When “Shakin’” was optioned as a film project by Sidney Poitier, Ms. Youngblood used the money to attend graduate school at Brown University, where she studied with the playwright Paula Vogel and earned a master’s degree in creative writing in 1993. (The film was never made.)

“The Black girl writing world is especially small and the Black queer girl writing world is even smaller, so we’ve known each for a long time,” Jacqueline Woodson, the noted children’s author, novelist and poet, said of Ms. Youngblood. “But ‘Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery’ was the first work of hers I read, and I just fell in love with it.

“It’s a celebration,” she continued, “of so many things about what it means to be a daughter — or niece or cousin or grandchild — of a Black woman, and it makes me think of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop” — a scholar known for her work on multicultural children’s literature — “who said that people need mirrors and windows in their literature. Mirrors so they can recognize themselves. And windows so they can see into worlds they might never otherwise imagine. ‘Shakin’’ was that mirror of myself in the world in a bigger way.”

The performer, director and playwright Daniel Alexander Jones, who befriended Ms. Youngblood at Brown (and who helped stage “Shakin’” in Austin, Texas, in 1997), recalled being struck by another play that Ms. Youngblood wrote, “Black Power Barbie,” about a brother and sister, both gay, whose parents were Black Panthers who had been murdered. The play was reimagined by Ms. Youngblood as a graphic novel in 2013.

“It was a dive into Black queerness,” Mr. Jones said in an interview. “She staged these beautiful love scenes, and it was a rare time to see Black queer intimacy.” (Ms. Youngblood wrote the play in the early 1990s.)

“She really made us whole onstage,” he added. “She presaged something about the fluidity and multiplicity of identity. Her work is far more radical than it might first seem to be. It’s radical because it’s whole food.”

Sharon Ellen Youngblood was born Oct. 16, 1959, in Columbus, the only child of Mary Lee Kemp and Lonnie Willis Crosby. Her surname, Ms. Alexander said, came from one of her mother’s husband’s.

Ms. Youngblood earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from Clark Atlanta University, after which she joined the Peace Corps and worked for two years as an agriculture information officer in Dominica. She then moved back to Atlanta, where for a time she worked at Charis Books & More, one of the country’s oldest feminist bookstores, where she got her start as a writer.

The store’s founder, Linda Bryant, nudged her into having a poetry reading there when she was in her early 20s. The assignment terrified Ms. Youngblood, who tried to bail even as the audience was settling in. But she pulled through, and she later credited Ms. Bryant with jump-starting her career.

She published her first novel, “Soul Kiss,” about a young girl’s search for the father she never knew after the death of her mother, in 1997. But it was her second novel, “Black Girl in Paris” (2000), that became a touchstone for many. It tells the story of Eden, a 26-year-old Southern woman on a quest for experience in Paris during a summer of terror bombings there. She feels precarious but also free, and she picks up an assortment of somewhat-sketchy mentors. She makes maps of the city, to note its safe routes but also to pinpoint the habitats and hangouts of the Black artists who came before her, notably James Baldwin.

It’s a Baedeker tucked into a novel-memoir — Ms. Youngblood, like her protagonist, traveled to Paris in her mid-20s and worked as an au pair and an artist’s model — spiced with magic realism and strewn with recipes and how-to’s.

In a review for The Los Angeles Times, the novelist Paula L. Woods praised the novel’s “eroticism, shifting sexuality and vivid imagery,” and its recipes for pommes tarte Tatin (apple tart) and gratin dauphinois (scalloped potatoes), calling it “an engaging, unpredictable portrait of an artist as a young Black girl.”

Ms. Youngblood was also the author of two illustrated children’s books, “Mama’s Home” (2022) and “A Family Prayer” (2023). Among other honors, she won a Pushcart Prize for fiction for “Born With Religion,” one of the short stories in “The Big Mama Stories,” as well as a Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award in 1993 for “Talking Bones” and several N.A.A.C.P. awards for her plays, which include “Square Blues,” about three generations of activists, staged by Horizon in 2022.

“Black Girl in Paris” is being developed as a feature film by Natalie Baszile, whose novel “Queen Sugar” was adapted for television, and her daughter, Hyacinth Parker. At her death, Ms. Youngblood was working on a book about her mother.

No immediate family members survive. Ms. Youngblood’s marriage to Annette Lawrence, in 2010, ended in divorce in 2020.

“Before I left home I cut my hair close to my scalp so I could be a free woman with free thoughts, open to all possibilities,” Ms. Youngblood wrote in “Black Girl in Paris.” “I was making a map of the world. In ancient times maps were made to help people find food, water, and the way back home. I needed a map to help me find love and language, and since one didn’t exist, I’d have to invent one, following the trails and signs left by other travelers.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to be, but I knew I wanted to be the kind of woman who was bold, took chances, and had adventures.”


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