In the shadow of the Guthrie, Bellamy and Penumbra grapple with community connections


On June 28, Lou Bellamy, founder and artistic director of the Penumbra Theatre, was announced as the winner of the 2006 McKnight Distinguished Artist Award, a prestigious recognition of Minnesota artists who have made significant contributions to the community. In the wake of this latest honor and another spate of local interviews, we asked Bellamy to talk about the special role of black theatre in the African American community and the state of that community’s support for what he and Penumbra does.

“Artists always find a way to tell the truth, or their truth,” said Bellamy. Since 1976, Penumbra, one of the finest African American theaters in the U.S., has been “telling the truth” to the community with no barriers.

Tucked into the St. Paul community of Selby-Dale, Penumbra is a small, intimate, professional theatre nestled in the Hallie Q. Brown/Martin Luther King Community Center. More than 40,000 people view plays at St. Paul’s oldest professional theatre each year.

However, the Penumbra grapples for space while other theatres like the Guthrie flourish. Due to the competitive nature of theatre, Bellamy says the effect of larger theatres may not be seen for months or years.

“We can’t close the barn doors after the horses have run out. It’s [the Guthrie] here, and it’s part of the geography, and we have to deal with that… If they are not successful it will harm all of us. The interrelationship amongst theatres is complicated.”

Bellamy is happy to see that “there is an appetite from businesses and philanthropists to support theatre.” However, he points out that because of the large investment by the community, the organization must have a “solid plan to maintain the new size and costs. It’s a finite universe, and there’s only so much of everything,” he said.

The relocation of the Guthrie may cause members of the black community to wonder if Penumbra is planning a move as well. Bellamy says that while “a move is inevitable,” the theatre will always be housed in the African American community.

“I will be doing, and we will be doing, what the community needs… African Americans need things to feel good about, and a better physical appointment for the theatre is one of them.”

He has no complaints about the current location and says the community center has served the Penumbra well. “We are forced to do more with less, and that builds character,” he commented. Bellamy refuses to be bitter over the lack of funding for black theatre and applauds his board of directors and members of the community for their support.

The Penumbra is currently on the fourth year of a five-year financial plan to get out of debt. They have drastically eliminated their debt and currently only have $100,000 left to work off.

“They [the Penumbra board of directors] don’t have deep pockets, but they are extremely hard-working and committed,” he commented. “You don’t run a mid-size organization for 30 years if you’re not doing something right. As long as you’re breathing, you’ve survived. We are surrounded by a community with strong hearts, strong muscles and big hands.

“Theatre is part of the good life for the Twin Cities,” added Bellamy. He believes that art should be part of the balance of life in addition to family, education, religion and sports.

“Theatre, which is a European art form, is acquired and learned. W.E.B. Dubois understood the powerful ways this art form could be used [for blacks]. It seems that most of the giving goes to education and the church, but theatre is important too.”

Since its beginning, Penumbra has been committed to providing education along with art. Penumbra’s Educational and Outreach Programs have reached more than 5,000 students per year. These programs include the Penumbra Summer Institute Program, symposiums, talk backs, study guides, and the Horace J. Bond Ambassador Program.

Bellamy encourages the youth to get involved in theatre in its totality — there is more to theatre than being an actor. “For black people, black theatre is the only living, breathing art form that allows them to be engaged in an immediate way… It [theatre] should be seen as powerful, educational and transitional. To not avail themselves to these opportunities is a terrible waste.”

During the Black Arts Movement in the early to mid-seventies, Bellamy recalls 75 to 100 black professional theatres in existence. Now he believes there are roughly four or five left, depending on the definition of “professional.” One definition is a theater with professional talents recognized by the Actors or Directors Union. Another definition is a theatre with a continuous tenure and brochure of plays for the year.

“We [Penumbra] offer a brochure for the year. We have been continuous in our tenure by offering work for 30 years as well,” said Bellamy.

“Art is not a democracy”; therefore, Bellamy chooses plays by himself. “I choose plays based on what I would like to see my community deal with.” He receives 200 to 300 scripts per year, and due to time and development restraints, some never see the light of day. Penumbra can boast of having 20 world play premiers, including those of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson.

“Art for art’s sake in the African American community is lunacy,” Bellamy says. “Theatre is something that has been used for social change, and that is troubling to some people.” Bellamy reminds the community that the theatre’s plays are efforts to make the community better and should be seen as “constructive criticism” instead of an attack.

“We have something to say and that’s why we’ve survived. We ask, ‘Is it relevant? Does it make sense? Will it bring about change?’”

Bellamy emphasized that the black community and black businesses or organizations should support each other. He notes that black theatre “is not supported in the kinds of ways it needs to be by the majority” and urges more representation at the theatre from the black press and the surrounding community.

“We must learn to see theatre as a part of life,” he said. “If the black press values theatre, then the community will value theatre. The black press needs to be present at rehearsals, pre-shows, opening nights and talk backs. If they are not serious, social ramifications will occur.”

Community members have numerous avenues for involvement with the Penumbra. They can become part of the exclusive Baobab Family, participate in the Challenge Grant, donate, volunteer, or simply join the mailing list to stay informed.

“The Penumbra is considered one of the pre-eminent black professional theatres in the United States or even the world,” says Bellamy. “For blacks to say they haven’t been here shows a lack of their involvement in the community or limit of it. This theatre is theirs — they need to embrace it and take better care of it.”