Penumbra’s 2015-16 season: love as impetus for social change


Daughter Sarah discusses what she’s learned from father Lou Bellamy

Sarah Bellamy
Sarah Bellamy

In the rarefied aesthetic of African American theater, there is The Negro Ensemble Company, there is Penumbra Theatre and then there is everywhere else. Penumbra’s 2015-16 season is indicative of the premier venue’s commitment to prevail as a cultural cornerstone.

Comprised of more than 20 presentations and productions, it combines stage, cinema, lectures and seminars to richly illuminate the Black experience in this society, past and present, with prestigious guest artists, speakers and panelists.

A perk for longtime followers, it marks the ongoing transition of leadership as founder Lou Bellamy shares the reins with co-artistic director, daughter and eventual successor Sarah Bellamy. “Lou and I selected the upcoming season,” she said when reached by email, “to reflect the times in which we find ourselves presently.

“The idea was to highlight the importance — the necessity — of love in any revolutionary action. Whether self-love, love for one’s family or community, it takes a great deal of love to stand up for what you believe is right.

“So, we wanted to turn the idea of revolutionaries as vengeful or hateful on its head and remind people that at the heart of the courage it takes to fight for social change is great love. That concept is important.”

Accordingly, the season is titled Revolution Love, with noteworthy highlights on the upcoming agenda. Among the stage offerings, Lou Bellamy directs Amiri Baraka’s classic Dutchman and perennial Penumbra holiday favorite Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity. In the Reel Talk film series are screenings of Long Revolutionary: a Journey with Mumia Abu Jamal, Carl Lumbly as Nat Turner: a Troublesome Property, and Mountains that Take Wing: Angela Davis & Yuri Kochiyama. Let’s Talk discussions include The Black Panthers with co-founding party member Bobby Seale and Malcom X: the Man and His Legacy with local luminary Mahmoud El-Kati.

With rumors of Lou Bellamy’s retirement being premature, he nonetheless at some point will leave enormous shoes to fill, having developed and sustained so renowned an establishment. The first question Black actors routinely get when they visit other cities is, “Have you worked at Penumbra?”

Company members, of course, are revered as virtual royalty, holding a distinction shared with the likes of August Wilson, Claude Purdy and Marion McClinton, names that resonate through the theatre world — African American and otherwise. How does the young Ms. Bellamy feel about someday taking over?

“It is daunting to take on such an important and historic institution, and I am incredibly honored,” she replies. “I have also — quite literally — grown up here and feel as if the mission, the ethos, the aesthetics are in my blood and bones.

“I believe in my ability to follow the moral compass that so many who have come before me have helped to shape, and I plan to honor that and push us ever further toward creating equity for all. It’s been thrilling and a true learning experience.”

Asked about stepping into Dad’s shoes, she answers, “I don’t feel I’ll ever fill his shoes, so to speak, but we often talk about walking a bit further down the path. He shepherded Penumbra through a tremendous journey and a tumultuous time. I hope to see it through the dawn of a new era and through different challenges and opportunities.

“He had a particular vision for the company I think he absolutely achieved — Penumbra is so highly regarded across the country. I have a different vision for the organization, one that honors what he built but activates it more fully. I hope to do him proud.”

Sarah Bellamy hasn’t exactly been sitting around in the catbird’s seat, idly waiting to inherit the mantle. She’s spent years learning the ropes, starting humbly enough to help out at times as an usher and, along the way, has made her bones.

“It’s been wonderful to work alongside my father. He and I truly enjoy one another and he has taught me so much. He’s a brave and very loving man.

“He loves Black people with a depth that inspires me to be [braver] every day,” she continued. “He’s taught me that love, too, and that’s what I always go back to when running the business gets hard. It refocuses me.

“I wish more children had the opportunity to learn from and work with their parents in this way. It’s been really enlightening and empowering.

“The other essential element of my training has been being around the art for so many years. I know Penumbra’s aesthetic and have learned while working beside him to demand the same high quality and production standards that my father expects.”

Suffice to say Penumbra Theatre’s continued success literally is a family affair. And the 2015-16 season provides an excellent opportunity to enjoy the experience.


Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.