“Penumbra Theatre at 40: Art, Race and a Nation on Stage”

Minnesota History Center exhibit documents the long, deep roots behind Penumbra Theatre and the history of African American art and literature

The Ballad of Emmett Till performed at Penumbra

photo courtesy penumbra

Almost a decade ago, I shot nine holes of golf with Penumbra Theatre artistic director Lou Bellamy. I was writing a story about the theater’s upcoming season, but the pastoral setting led to a far-ranging conversation about one of the nation’s most revered and accomplished African-American theaters. Bellamy tried to define the alchemy behind the ensemble he helped found in 1976, which produces an uncanny brand of authenticity and artistic intensity unlike any other. Bellamy called it a whole different social order on the stage. 

“Penumbra Theatre at 40: Art, Race and a Nation on Stage” at the Minnesota History Center provides a comprehensive examination and definition of precisely what that means—deep roots intertwined with the African-American experience and a restless desire to document it through storytelling (while Penumbra is rightfully noticed for its social mission, it’s also always a theater that keeps laser focus on the power of story).

The scope of this history hits you in the heart with such artifacts as sketches from Shakespeare performances in the 1820s by New York’s African Grove Theatre—the first African-American theater company, and one that was subject to hate, hecklers, and riots in its short existence. Digging deep into archival collections, the exhibit features a copy of the first book written by an African American and the controversy if caused, as well as graphics and items from the ignominious history of minstrelsy in America.

From the 20th Century, the exhibit includes original books and programs from the Black Arts Movement, moving headlong into the 1960s and the decades that followed, in which the genius playwright August Wilson would develop some of his finest work in concert with Penumbra. The exhibit also contains great local flavor such as items from the theater’s community center home, including the poster of Black Panther Huey Newton that used in hang in Bellamy’s office. Finally there are rich exhibits from Penumbra’s past, including sets (from its performance of Wilson’s Fences) and photographs documenting its history.

I’ve always felt honored by the time I spent in Bellamy’s presence—aside from being an intense and enlightened spirit, he’s been at the center of an entirely unique journey and is willing to share what he’s learned from it. “Penumbra Theatre at 40” is a chance to lean into and truly absorb this knowledge: the long history of African American art and literature, and the experiences and textures that have underpinned the four-decade magic act that’s taken place on Kent Street in St. Paul. If you’ve seen a Penumbra show, you know there’s something remarkable and irreplaceable going on—here’s the long road that led to what happens under those lights.

“Penumbra Theatre at 40: Art, Race and a Nation on Stage”
Through July 30
The Minnesota History Center