Penumbra marks 40 years of illuminating the African-American experience through art

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Penumbra Theater Company // Photo by Aaron Davidson, The Growler

When you pull up to St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre, considered one of the largest and most important African-American theater companies in the nation, the first thing you notice is the playground. Tots toddle down teal-colored slides. Little yellow dump trucks sit bedded in a swath of wood chips. The fence that borders the property is streaked with age. A wealth of ivy threatens to usurp Penumbra’s humble signage—mute purple letters screwed into pocked concrete.

The building is the Martin Luther King Community Recreation Center, which houses the Hallie Q Brown Community Center, NAACP, Project Cheer, and, of course, Penumbra. It’s located in the heart of St. Paul’s Rondo (Summit–University) neighborhood, a historically thriving African-American community.

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Lou and Sarah Bellamy // Photo courtesy of Penumbra

In the 1960s, the construction of I-94 sliced the neighborhood in half, forcing some 650 families to relocate. Integration and, recently, gentrification has changed the neighborhood. “It’s no longer the bastion of black political and social power it used to be,” says Sarah Bellamy, Penumbra’s co-artistic director. But this doesn’t change Penumbra’s mission, the core of which has remained the same since the theater opened 40 years ago, in 1976. That mission: creating “professional productions that are artistically excellent, thought provoking, and relevant, and illuminate the human condition through the prism of the African-American experience.”

Penumbra is rooted in the Black Arts Movement, which says art should be made by, for, about, and near black people and the people it represents. “Lou, the founder, would say that he directs all of the plays as if there were no one but black people in the house,” says Bellamy, Lou’s daughter. “The thing that makes Penumbra special is that we facilitate that experience. So, when the Guthrie does ‘Trouble in Mind,’ or Park Square does ‘Color Purple,’ they’re going to do the play, but they’re not going to do it from a black perspective per se.”

Bellamy describes Penumbra’s acting style as “lower” and “grittier.” Classically trained actors often act “from up here,” she says, pointing to her head. “If anybody, we’re talking to black people about the black experience. If white folks want to come, that’s great and awesome, but they’ll have to do a little more work,” Bellamy says. She estimates that about 60 percent of Penumbra’s audience identifies as white. Gentrification may have played a role in that. (The latest census reports put St. Paul at 60 percent white, 15 percent African-American.) Or perhaps the message of Black Lives Matter is being heeded by more white Twin Cities residents. Whatever the reason, as Bellamy says: “We are in St. Paul.”

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Penumbra Theater Company // Photo by Aaron Davidson, The Growler

Three years ago, Penumbra Theatre announced that Lou Bellamy, founder and longtime artistic director, would hand down the reins to Sarah. The announcement came at a time fraught with uncertainty for the theater. Penumbra, facing possible closure, was postponing shows for the 2012 season and had to lay off six of its 16 employees and curtail its budget from $2.7 million to $1.9 million. This juncture also saw the closing of Theatre de la Jeune Lune (now a wedding venue in the North Loop neighborhood in Minneapolis), who had operated for 30 years and were, according to Bellamy, “producing art at the highest level.” All this forced Penumbra to ask themselves a big question, she says: “Are we going to try to pay off debt and close? Or are we going to keep going?”

Penumbra opted for the latter. While they focused more on fundraising, the national theater community rallied and helped the theater raise over $400,000 in just six months.

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Photo by Aaron Davidson, The Growler

But the burning question remains: Has Penumbra recovered? “We’re still in the echoes of that,” Bellamy says. “You can’t be too anxious about it. We’ve had to build slowly and incrementally.” There are still 10 full-time employees, but the theater has reoriented operations to better suit their mission. For instance, after the 2012 financial scare, Penumbra discontinued their scenic shop, which had built sets for other theater companies, including the Ordway Center, Theater Latté Da, Opera Omaha, and the Minnesota Opera, among others, because it never became a viable revenue stream. Instead, they focused on education and programming to help audiences understand and talk about Penumbra’s productions, which dramatize momentous historical events and incur intense emotional reactions. Bellamy, who wrote her master’s thesis on the Transatlantic Slave Trade, led the charge.

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Inside Penumbra Theater’s offices // Photo by Aaron Davidson, The Growler

Part of this programming includes Penumbra’s Let’s Talk series, a 90-minute presentation and discussion facilitated by Bellamy. Social justice, equality, the arts—the topics vary. This season, these “compassionate and challenging conversations” will cover the role of The Diva, the Rondo neighborhood, voting rights, and sustaining theaters of color.

Penumbra also hosts Reel Talk, screening films and following up with a discussion, and Bookends classes, where audience members are invited back after they’ve seen a play to further explore insights about the script and glean production details. Furthermore, Penumbra produces original contextual essays, some 40 to 60 pages in length, to accompany performances. The essays are available online—for scholars, teachers, or anyone wanting to steep themselves in research—and get condensed into notes for playbills. For the younger generation, the Summer Institute is a three-year training program for teens that focuses on social change and gives young artists an opportunity to showcase original work.

They do all this, and yet: “There are people across the street that don’t know we’re here,” Bellamy says. “But we’re working on that.” Others, like the Minnesota History Center, are working on that, too. In February 2017, the center will feature Penumbra in a special exhibit highlighting the theater’s 40-year journey.

That’s not to say that Penumbra isn’t nationally recognized or acclaimed (it is). It’s just to say that instead of having have a glimmering façade along the Mississippi River, Penumbra instead has deep roots in a particular place. It’s a place brimming with history and meaning, and flanked by a fleet of guardian angels: people who paved ways, called out injustices, and demanded that everyone, not just African-Americans, pay attention—Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, Sonya Sanchez, August Wilson. “Still We Rise,” indeed.

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