“I read it, and I went, ‘Oh, this is my life,’” she said in a 2017 interview featured on the website of the Center Theater Group, home to the Taper, Kirk Douglas and Ahmanson Theaters in Los Angeles. “Citizen,” she said reminded her of “walking through and navigating those torrential waters of mainstream America when you are a person of color or ‘other,’ and what you have to swallow in order to survive.”
When the Fountain observed its 25th anniversary in 2015, Charles McNulty, The Los Angeles Times’s theater critic, wrote that Ms. Finney had infused “Citizen” with “the spirit of public reckoning” and added, “Her cast didn’t so much portray characters as stand in solidarity with the nameless voices reflecting, mourning and expressing outrage over the micro and micro aggressions (from a careless bigoted remark to police abuse) confronting Black people on a daily basis.”
Shirley Jo Finney was born on July 14, 1949, in Merced, Calif., about 55 miles northwest of Fresno. Her mother, Ricetta (Amey) Finney, was a teacher and counselor. Her father, Nathaniel, sold auto parts. In 1959 she moved to Sacramento with her mother, her sister, her stepfather, Charles James, a municipal court judge, and her stepbrother, also Charles James.
In high school, she was in the drama club. She then attended Sacramento City College for one semester before transferring to Sacramento State College (now California State University, Sacramento). At a party, she met Wilma Rudolph, the sprinter who had won three gold medals at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome and was teaching at the school. They became friends, and Ms. Finney became a babysitter for Ms. Rudolph’s children.
“I told her, ‘One day, I’m going to make a film about you,’” Ms. Finney recalled in an interview with The Sacramento Bee in 2000.