Penumbra Theatre: A Look Back

Penumbra’s poignant productions

St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre Company, the most prominent African American company in the country, is credited with launching the career of playwright August Wilson and an ensemble of actors who have performed together for decades. As Penumbra founder Lou Bellamy begins to transition his daughter, Sarah, into the artistic director’s role, we asked company members to reflect on poignant productions in the theater’s history.

Two Old black Guys Just Sitting Around Talking

“Scripts like this come along once in a lifetime, and for black men sometimes not at all. Here are two old men who don’t like each other but are friends, without knowing it, because they have survived and outlived everyone else in their lives.”

–Abdul Salaam El Razzac





Fool For Love

“For the most part, Penumbra has rejected doing plays that are not written expressly for African American actors. But the company has produced a few plays that are unique, in that they offer specific and worthwhile comment or challenges to our artists and community. Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love did just that. I played the male lead, and the opportunity to portray a black cowboy and the spectrum of extra-normal human emotions stretched to Shepard’s extremes was an absolute blast!”

–Lou Bellamy





The Piano Lesson

“I have been a proud company member for 30-plus years and have loved working at Penumbra because I’ve always felt that it was a safe and nurturing place in which to grow as an actor/entertainer. Penumbra will always be my family, my friends, my anchor!”

–Dennis Spears






“Oftentimes in theater it’s difficult to run across roles for African American women that are fleshed out or authentic, but Spunk ushered in the opportunity to explore and reveal different facets, colors, and textures of three very distinct women of color.”

–Austene Van





Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

“I remember sitting on stage in full costume with Lou Bellamy and realizing that my journey was coming full circle: I was with the director who founded the theater that provided the place, and the players, to develop the playwright August Wilson, who wrote the play that made me want to be an actor. Lou walked over to me and whispered, I wish August could see this. This is gonna be ‘bad’!”

–James T. Alfred





On the Open Road

“Some years ago, we did a production called Get Ready. One afternoon, before rehearsal, I ran into Woodie King, Jr., the famed Broadway producer, and reminded him of a conversation we had the year before, when Lou won his Obie and Woodie had asked me why I never come and work in NYC. I told him it was because I worked for the best theater company, with the best talent, in the country. Woodie said, ‘Bulls@#t!’ So that night, we were doing our second preview and I asked Woodie to come by. He did. Toward the end of the performance, during our last number, I saw big old Woodie King jumping up and down, screaming like some fool girl at a Teddy Pendergrass concert—like every other audience member. After the show, I walked up to Woodie and I said, ‘Am I right?’ Woodie said, ‘Damn right! On this night, you’re right!’”

–James Craven