Provided by: Kathy A Perkins, mentee and friend
Shirley Prendergast departed this life to join the ancestors on Feb.ruary 26, 2019, in New York City. A recipient of the 2014 USITT Distinguished Achievement Award in Lighting Design, Prendergast made history as the first African-American woman to be admitted to the United Scenic Artists’ (USA) lighting division in 1969, and the first African-American female lighting designer on Broadway in 1973, with Joseph Walker’s The River Niger.
She was born Merris Shirley Prendergast in Boston in 1929 and was raised primarily in New York City. While she admits that her interest in theatre started later in life, Prendergast was a trailblazer and mentor to many African-American lighting designers.
In 1954, she received a B.A. 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, she took dance classes, which she enjoyed to the point where she began to perform with various small companies.
As an amateur photographer, Prendergast took a lighting class at the 51st St. 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 (NEC), Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, and on Broadway with Waltz of the Stork (1982) The Amen Corner (1983), Don’t Get God Started (1987), and Paul Robeson (1988 & 1995), in addition to many regional theatres.
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, the1998 Black Theatre Network (BTN) Winona Lee Fletcher Awardee for Artistic Excellence 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 always” when asked how she was doing, Shirley Prendergast was a beacon of light and will be sorely missed.