Black Nativity turns 20

There’s plenty to celebrate over at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul. First, its holiday staple, Black Nativity, turns 20 this year, conceived immaculately once again by the winning duo of T. Mychael Rambo and Lou Bellamy with choreography by the joyous TU Dance team. Running through December 30, it’s gospel music with a storyline–the storyline, you might say–though the theater’s own life lately has been dramatic as well. Last week, after years of debt followed by years of restructuring, Penumbra announced it was moving forward with a new five-year plan, having completed four profitable seasons in a row.

It’s something of a miracle–a rebirth for one of the nation’s preeminent African-American theaters, a shrinking circle to be sure. About four years ago, the theater was faced with closing or massively overhauling the way it did business. In a remarkable tribute to unflinching, cold-turkey, whatever-it-takes GSD, they pressed on–through painful layoffs, slashing of shows, even canceling plays already on the docket when the funds would run out at the end of the seasons. And they did it: eliminating $600,000 in debt, creating sustainable organizational strategies, and generating $1 million from 1,500 donors in only 36 months. It didn’t hurt that Bellamy won a coveted Obie Award this year on his first time directing in New York (Bellamy: 1, Broadway establishment: 0).

Now, Penumbra is pushing its New Era campaign, designed to make these changes more or less permanent. Launched in January, the $2.9 million goal would help establish more sustainable funding mechanisms but also help hire back more staff and establish a program for promoting racial understanding. Interestingly, $180,000 is also earmarked for ensuring a proper “artistic succession”–Bellamy can’t shoulder the art forever. It’s been a remarkable run, and one, against all odds, with a happy ending.