Trailblazing lighting designer Shirley Prendergast passes

Kathy A. Perkins | 4/4/2019, 11:35 a.m.
Shirley Prendergast departed this life to join the ancestors on Feb. 26, 2019.
Shirley Prendergast Contributed

Shirley Prendergast departed this life to join the ancestors on Feb. 26, 2019. A 1996 BTN Winona Lee Fletcher Awardee for Artistic Excellence in Lighting Design, Prendergast made history as the first African-American woman to be admitted to the United Scenic Artists’ lighting division in 1969, and the first Black female lighting designer on Broadway in 1973, with Joseph Walker’s “The River Niger.”

A memorial service in her honor will be held at Aaron Davis Hall’s Marion Anderson Theater, located at 115 Convent Avenue, on April 8, 2019, at 7 p.m.

She was born Merris Shirley Prendergast in Boston in 1929 and raised primarily in New York City. While her interest in her theater career started later in life, Prendergast was a trailblazer and mentor to many African-American lighting designers.

In 1954, she received a BA degree in microbiology from Brooklyn College and later worked as a bacteriologist with the New York City Health Department. As a result of being on a job with very little physical activity, she gained weight, which led her to taking dance classes. She enjoyed the classes to the point where she began to perform with various small companies.

As an amateur photographer, Prendergast took a lighting class at the 51st Street YWCA, which was housed in the Clark Center for the Performing Arts, where Alvin Ailey and other young Black dancers and choreographers performed. It was during this period in the late 1950s that she developed her love of lighting. This small lighting course led her to take advanced design classes at the renowned Lester Polokov’s Studio of Stage Design.

Her passion for dance and lighting exposed Prendergast to the professional world, where she assisted many prominent designers before branching out on her own. Over the next 50 years, her designs would be presented with such companies as the New Federal Theatre, the Negro Ensemble Company, Alvin Ailey, and on Broadway with “Waltz of the Stork” (1982), “The Amen Corner” (1983), “Don’t Get God Started” (1987), and “Paul Robeson” (1988 and 1995), in addition to many regional theaters.

A recipient of numerous awards, Prendergast received a 1997 Obie Award for Sustained Excellence in Lighting Design, the 2009 National Black Theatre Festival Award for Outstanding Achievement in Lighting Design, the 2014 United States Institute for Theatre Technology Distinguished Achievement Award in Lighting Design, as well as numerous New York City Audelco awards.

Prendergast continued to design into her late 80s, mainly with Woodie King Jr. and the New Federal Theatre. One of her last productions was “Zora Neale Hurston: A Theatrical Biography” in 2016.

With her favorite response of “better and better” when asked how she was doing, Shirley Prendergast was a beacon of light and will be sorely missed.