Remembering “The Shakespeare Lady” 

By Cathy Shufro ’71


When Margaret Ann Holloway ’70 died on May 30 in New Haven, Connecticut, the New York Times reported her death. So did a dozen other publications. It was extraordinary coverage for a woman with schizophrenia who spent her days on the street.

Hobbled by mental illness soon after graduating from the Yale School of Drama, Holloway gained renown in New Haven for her impromptu performances in the neighborhood near her alma mater. We called her “the Shakespeare Lady.”

“She was a leader among the Black women. She was so brilliant that we were optimistic.”

She found her audience among passersby, her stage a stretch of sidewalk. When she needed money for dinner or for necessities like shampoo, she’d offer a brief performance in exchange for cash: a soliloquy from Hamlet; the opening scene of Macbeth; some Chaucer; a passage from Euripides. While reciting, she would gaze into the distance, her voice resonant, her delivery deliberate. 

Holloway grew up in Albany, Georgia, the daughter of a minister and a homemaker. She was 9 when, in 1961, a handful of local Black college students catalyzed “the Albany Movement” by attempting to desegregate the Trailways bus terminal. Civil rights groups organized massive nonviolent protests in the city, and police arrested 700 people, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Five years later — 12 years after Brown v. Board of Education — the first Black students began to walk the halls of Albany High School, and Holloway was among them. 

 “I was nervous for them,” said her Albany High classmate, Bob Parker, who is white. He was, Holloway later told him, the only white student to sign her yearbook.

She transferred to Northfield as a junior in the fall of 1968. Donna-Marie Peters ’71 remembers her as “statuesque, eloquent, with big round eyes that were very communicative of her emotions and her very dramatic persona.” Holloway was a dancer and an actor. “She was confident with her talent. She was a leader among the Black women,” says Peters, who is also Black.

“When the fishbowl you’re in gets bigger, the spotlight gets brighter.”

Cornell Hills ’70 met Holloway through the Northfield Mount Hermon Afro Am Society. He found her open, serious, and funny. In the schools’ first coed yearbook, Black Light, which focused on Black students, he and other seniors named her “most soulful.”

Margaret Holloway in “Recipe,” a play she wrote, directed, and performed at Bennington College.

Peters recalls, “Even though she was Black and female, the world was her oyster. She was so brilliant that we were optimistic. This was the generation that was really going to make it.” 

Holloway began college at Carleton, then transferred to Bennington, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in drama. At Yale, she specialized in directing and graduated with an MFA in 1980. 

To get the education she did, Holloway had to enter one new world after another. “When the fishbowl you’re in gets to be bigger, the spotlight gets to be brighter,” Hills says. For Holloway, to be young, gifted, and Black meant both possibility and pressure. But after graduating from Yale, schizophrenia started to incapacitate her.

I began running into Holloway in the 1990s. I taught writing at Yale, and I’d cross paths with her when I walked by Clark’s diner or went for a haircut. She’d be quick-witted and engaged one day, distracted and remote on another. She was often loud, and sometimes emaciated, an effect of drugs. In an interview with New Haven Register reporter Randall Beach, she described the effects of her illness: “Not only do I see and hear bad things, I also taste, feel, and smell them,” she told him. “If I’m on the street, I might feel a car has run over me. It’s like the whole world has fallen in on me.” 

Yet Holloway remained an actor. And hundreds of people in New Haven and beyond came to know her. One of her Bennington classmates released a film about her in 2001 called God Didn’t Give Me a Week’s Notice. New York filmmaker Cecilia Rubino, a 1982 Yale Drama graduate, tracked down Holloway to include her in Remembering Shakespeare, a documentary Rubino directed in 2018.

Holloway quit drugs a decade ago, but when she developed trouble walking in her mid-60s, she moved to a nursing home. Her friend Joan Channick, chair of the theater management program at the Yale School of Drama, visited her regularly, and said Holloway prepared for their visits by listing what she wanted to discuss: news of actors she’d known; ideas for directing Shakespeare; current events. “She was engaged with the world,” says Channick. 

With the advent of COVID-19, Holloway told Channick she was terrified of isolation and of the virus. The nursing home soon barred visitors, but Channick continued to call. In May, Holloway stopped answering those calls, and by the time Channick located Holloway at Yale New Haven Hospital, she was in a coma. Holloway died of COVID-19.

“She led this very dramatic and publicly tragic life,” says Channick. “She somehow persevered.”

 

Photos courtesy of Bennington College