It’s time to rally around Penumbra Theatre

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On Thursday, when I heard the news that Penumbra was cancelling its plays for the rest of this year. I just couldn’t believe it. How could this have happened? How could we let this happen?

I was particularly stung because in the last couple of weeks I’ve been interviewing people from the theater about its history. I spoke with James Williams for an Our Scene piece, where he spoke about the theater’s beginnings, and interviewed Faye Price about the company’s beginnings for my research project, and had been in talks with Chris Widdess, the company’s manager, about setting up an interview with Lou Bellamy, who is currently out of town.

Penumbra was founded by Lou Bellamy in 1976, at a time when there was a need for a venue for African American voices to be heard and African American artists to work. Since it opened, the theater has supported countless African American playwrights and artists, perhaps most notably August Wilson.

The first Penumbra show that I saw was Black Nativity, when I was a kid. At that time, the musical was set in the slavery period of American History, and was filled with soulful gospel music that brought me to tears. I had never seen anything like it. I didn’t know that theater could move you like that, with an entire audience on its feet.

Recently, Penumbra has been the lead partner in the University of Minnesota’s Preserving the Ephemeral project, aimed at documenting and preserving the theater’s history. My friend May Mahala  has written a book about the history of Penumbra, which will be released next year. These projects to preserve and remember the history of the company are absolutely vital, not only as a part of Minnesota’s history, but as a part of a broader history of African American arts in this country. 

But Penumbra isn’t just an institution that was important in the past. As a community, as a state, we still need Penumbra to act as a forum for a diversity of voices that all too often doesn’t get enough of a platform. Just as the Civil Rights movement didn’t end in the 1970s, so the need for artists of all races, backgrounds and experiences to enrich the cultural experience for the entire population is essential today.

If you were paying attention to the debate several months ago over the lack of diversity at the Guthrie Theater’s 2012/2013 season, and the lack of diversity in general in the Twin Cities (see here for Marianne Combs’ excellent article about how the Twin Cities’ arts scene has and has not changed), you can see we still need a company whose mission is to “illuminate the human condition through the prism of the African American experience.”

In an ideal world, one day all of the theaters will be diverse, and will include the voices and experiences of all of our citizens. We haven’t reached that day yet, and until we do, we need companies like Penumbra to ensure the African American voices  being heard. 

If you’d like to make a donation to Penumbra, to make sure that Penumbra stays a part of our cultural landscape, you can do so here.