Nativity Story

For 30 years, Penumbra Theatre Company has produced plays by, for, and about African Americans. But its own story is just beginning.

In 1976, Lou Bellamy looked around the Twin Cities theater scene and pronounced himself unimpressed. Not with the quality—good stories are good stories, good acting is good acting. But these weren’t his stories, as an African American, and they weren’t his people acting them out. The black experience, at least the way a black person would describe it, was virtually absent from local stages. Bellamy was concerned. “A brother should always keep the drumbeat in his heart,” he says, paraphrasing what playwright Paul Carter Harrison had written in 1972. “For if he loses its rhythm, he may miss the ‘A’ train and his ride home.” Bellamy wasn’t about to miss his ride. So he punched his own ticket.

With a $150,000 federal grant, Bellamy hired about 20 actors and support staff and built a stage in the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center in St. Paul, where he was the center’s cultural arts director. He called the venue Penumbra Theatre, a penumbra being the grayish middle ground between complete darkness and complete lightness, a place beyond black and white. His mission: to produce professional plays that illuminate the human condition through the prism of the African-American experience.

“There is this melting-pot philosophy that one size fits all,” Bellamy says. “But it doesn’t serve everyone well. One has to be specific.” And so, although 50 percent of Penumbra’s audiences are generally white, its plays are directed and acted as though there is no one in the house but African Americans. If you don’t know that “so good, make you slap your mama” means a food dish is incredibly delicious, you’re going to find out the same way black people learned about Ultimate Frisbee and Mason Jennings: pure osmosis.

By all accounts, Penumbra has more than succeeded in its mission, becoming a sort of brain trust for black expression. Penumbra gave Tony- and Pulitzer-winning playwright August Wilson his professional start. Alumni have worked in Hollywood and New York, with several currently taking Wilson’s Radio Golf to Broadway. Bellamy himself, at age 62, is undergoing a career renaissance, directing plays in Kansas City and New York this fall and recently receiving the Distinguished Artist Award from the Minneapolis-based McKnight Foundation. And yet, 30 years on, Penumbra is in some ways just getting started.

After years of seat-of-its-pants producing, Penumbra is stabilizing its finances (it expects to be debt-free by next year) and soon will offer accredited courses for teachers and high-school students exploring the issues portrayed onstage. In short, Penumbra is institutionalizing, like the Guthrie Theater or the Children’s Theatre Company or any other stage that’s perceived as speaking to the masses. For of course it is—as much as Bellamy can take away from Macbeth, written by an Anglo-Saxon in the Elizabethan era, white folks can glean from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, written in 1982 by August Wilson. As if to prove the point, Penumbra will launch a five-year project, starting next season, to stage Wilson’s entire 10-play cycle, an epic chronicle of African Americans in the 20th century and a literary achievement with few peers of any color, creed, or nationality.

It is a testament to the persistence of racism that few people question the universal relevance of Shakespeare (despite his embedment in such a specific time, culture, and perspective that his plays require a glossary), while a similar view of black playwrights’ work can still come as a revelation—even to African Americans.

“We’ve been duped into believing that you can only see that depth of what it means to be human when you go to see Shakespeare or Chekhov,” Bellamy has said. “Well, that’s BS…. Anything that happens inside of our culture is capable of describing every man and every woman anywhere.”

Or, as Wilson put it, “The experiences of African Americans are as wide open as God’s closet.”

Photo by Ann Marsden

Among the many myths that Bellamy would like to crush is the one that black people are a monolith: thinking alike, looking alike, living alike. Whatever that monolith is presumed to be (insert inner-city stereotype here), Bellamy is surely not part of it. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a naturalist, an actor, a director, and a longtime resident of a semi-rural suburb west of Minneapolis.

Bellamy has spent a good part of his six decades on the hill where the Hallie Q. Brown Center sits—the old Rondo neighborhood. Bellamy was raised there, before Interstate 94 sliced through the heart of what had been a lively African-American community. But it was in Mankato, where Bellamy attended college, that he discovered the theater. “I was always kind of a show-off,” he says. “And there were more girls in theater than on the track team.”

Bellamy’s first performance was in a satirical musical about an old white guy who falls into an inky well and thus finds out what it’s like to be black; Bellamy’s part was that of a black student who’s instructed by a white mucky-muck on how to “act Negro.” Bellamy’s mother walked out on the show, telling him, “I didn’t come 90 miles to watch you shuffle and Tom across the stage.” She missed the humor, but she did teach her son the power of theater literally to move people.

Lou Bellamy was inspired by the playwright Paul Carter Harrison, who wrote, in essence, “A brother should always keep the drumbeat in his heart. For if he loses its rhythm, he may miss the ‘A’ train and his ride home.”

This was the mid-1960s, when the Black Power movement arose in response to the slow progress of civil rights and rejected the assimilation of African Americans in favor of self-definition and self-sufficiency. The Black Arts Movement emerged as its aesthic sister and inspired the creation of hundreds of black theaters aimed at describing and empowering a people apart. “Art for art’s sake was no longer viable—art had to be political, art had to elevate and raise the spirits and the quality of life for African Americans,” explains Alexis Pate, a novelist and instructor in the African American and African Studies Department at the University of Minnesota. “Black people identified themselves, created art for themselves, judged it themselves—art for us.”

In some respects, the movement harkened to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, when Langston Hughes mused, “someday, somebody’ll stand up and talk about me, and write about me—black and beautiful—and sing about me, and put on plays about me.” Bellamy resolved that it would be him—he would tell the stories of all the people, the black people, whose stories have never been told. “A lot of what I see in his directing is a commemoration, a reaching back to his childhood, the respect for his family and their efforts for him to have a good life,” says Sarah Bellamy, Lou’s daughter and Penumbra’s associate producer. “I see my grandmother on stage all the time.”

But while Penumbra began with self-definition, it has recently embraced cultures the world over. Last year, for instance, Penumbra premiered and toured Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers, written by an American Indian playwright and focusing on the relationship between black soldiers on the American frontier and the Indians they were asked to hunt down. “As we got deeper and deeper into [our mission], the wonderful surprise that none of us expected is that you find your humanity and you find your link to everyone else when you are free to dig into yourself,” says Lou Bellamy. “Now we still talk about exploring the African American experience but when we do it, it’s so clear it’s everyone’s.”

Not that this globalization has come easily. “Many times when African Americans speak about worldly issues, they run into trouble in the larger community,” says Bellamy, “because African Americans are only supposed to be talking about race and civil rights.” Bellamy has irked some in his own community, too, as when he staged a play about homophobia among African Americans. “Penumbra brings the true African-American experience to life on the stage like no other theater is really capable of doing,” says Archie Givens Jr., a longtime supporter. “And sometimes that’s been hard for the community because they often want to just get away; they just want to have fun at the theater, watch a slick play or musical.”

Other black theaters, it could be argued, have had an even rougher run; of the hundreds that formed during the Black Arts Movement, Penumbra is one of the few professional venues left. Though, in the midst of the post-9/11 recession, having accumulated $500,000 in debt, Penumbra nearly called it curtains as well. As always, Bellamy and key supporters shouldered on.

“A lot of Lou is stubbornness,” says Givens. “It has to be.” Jim Craven, a longtime member of Penumbra’s acting company, loves to tell the story of the day a group of directors from various theaters came to Penumbra to observe rehearsals—only to find Lou Bellamy giving stage directions with a pistol in each hand. The guns, of course, were only props for a show, but still, there is something fiery in Bellamy’s determination to keep Penumbra going by—to use the revolutionary rhetoric of the Black Power movement—any means necessary.

Penumbra has emerged from the latest crisis leaner but stronger, and refocused on the theater’s mission of social change. Penumbra’s annual holiday show, Black Nativity, is subtitled A Homecoming this year, acknowledging this return to roots. And it’s ready to celebrate, staging a year of music-related shows (though not all musicals). “It’s an opportunity for us to tell a good story,” Bellamy says of Penumbra’s 30th season, “not to be going ‘Woe is Penumbra, woe is black people.’ There are good folks who worked hard, got themselves in a hole, and dug out.”

Not that Bellamy doesn’t celebrate every day he’s still on that hill in Rondo, fighting the good fight. “As long as you’re breathing,” he says, “the revolution’s still going.”

Tim Gihring is senior writer for Minnesota Monthly.

Black Nativity: A Homecoming runs through December 24 at Penumbra Theatre, 270 N. Kent St., St. Paul, 651-224-3180.