You don’t have to talk to Lou Bellamy long before you realize the founder and artistic director of the Penumbra Theatre — the nation’s foremost black community theater — to realize he cares far more about his art than his accolades.
But that isn’t to say he’s not happy about being given the McKnight Distinguished Artists Award, given each year to a top Minnesota artist.
“Whenever someone says you’re cool and you do good work, it feels good,” he said. “It’s better than them throwing stuff at you.”
Although his role has changed somewhat over the 30 years since he founded Penumbra in the St. Paul neighborhood where he grew up, the 62-year-old is as busy as ever. Bellamy spent last weekend in New York casting a play, one of several simultaneous projects he has going on around the country.
“Any division between my art and my life has been muted and grayed,” he said. Wherever he goes and whatever he does, be it speaking, directing or teaching at the University, his life is all about his art.
Bellamy started his theater career as a student at Mankato State in 1962. There, as a member of the school’s track team, he said he stuck out like a sore thumb in the almost-all-white town when professor Ted Paul was searching for black actors to star in the controversial play “Finian’s Rainbow,” about a white man who falls down a well and becomes black.
Performing that play in a town where blacks weren’t allowed to own land within the city limits taught him a lesson about art and its potential that he carries with him to this day.
“(Paul) was using art to make people think,” Bellamy said. “That got me. Since that was my introduction, I always thought that’s what theater was about. If it ain’t doing that, then I ain’t going to be around it.”
Bellamy became a student of the Black Arts Movement, the artistic sister to the Black Power political movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The movement saw art as a way to bring the community together and push for social change, and Bellamy took that ethos with him when he founded Penumbra in 1976.
Bellamy strives to reveal human experience through art, but what separates him from most theater directors is his desire to do that through the lens of black experience.
“If you think that the only way to get to universality is through a European template, you’re fooling yourself,” he said, noting that while writers such as Shakespeare and Chekhov are worthy of praise, there are other artists out there coming from a different perspective who also have something important to say.
“The challenge of finding oneself is going to be the same wherever you are,” he said.
A former Master of Fine Arts student Kamesha Jackson, who graduated in 2001 and works as a director for ETA Creative Arts in Chicago said of her professor, “I learned almost everything I know about theater from Lou Bellamy. He was my mentor.”
Jackson said Bellamy’s strength is “developing three-dimensional characters for the stage,” and coming up with nuanced performances to accurately portray black experience.
Bellamy said his proudest accomplishments have involved connecting with the community. He relayed a story of hanging a poster in a hallway at the Penumbra and an old woman commented that it was crooked. When he rolled his eyes at her nitpicking, she responded, “ ‘This is mine too, you know, I’ve been here as long as you.’ ”
“That was really wonderful,” Bellamy said, “to know I’m not doing this alone.” When things go right, he said, “the artist and the environment and the context are really truly one, and it’s magical, it’s an out-of-body experience.”
Neal Cuthbert, program director for the McKnight Foundation, said Bellamy’s time for recognition has come. Every year the foundation considers about 100 artists for their award, and Bellamy’s name has come up time and time again.
“Lou’s kind of one of the elders, as it were, of the local theater community,” he said.
Bellamy has worked with a host of artists with national reputations, and “over the last few years his national stature has just grown and grown and grown,” he said
Jackson agreed that Bellamy’s time has come. “He’s very deserving of any award and I think he’s been underappreciated in the field.”
Bellamy, meanwhile, considers himself lucky for getting to immerse himself in great art through all these years without having to leave home, and tries to spread the praise to others. “When I’m given this award, they’re really giving it to all these people who have helped build (Penumbra) through all these years,” he said.
But modesty aside, getting this award has to mean something, right?
“Maybe you only become distinguished at 60. I don’t know.”