History Center honors Penumbra Theatre’s 40th year

Lou Bellamy (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

A local Black history exhibit is now on display at St. Paul’s Minnesota History Center. “Penumbra Theatre at 40: Art, Race and a Nation on Stage” opened last weekend and will run until July 30. The exhibit is a joint partnership with Penumbra Theatre Company, the University of Minnesota Libraries’ Givens Collection of African American Literature, and Umbra Search African American History.

It features artifacts from the Givens Collection and free performances by Penumbra Theatre actors on the second Tuesday of every month beginning in March through July. The artifacts include costumes, playbills, props and set models, and multimedia presentations about Penumbra and its Summer Institute educational program. Penumbra Founder Lou Bellamy last week spoke to the MSR at the History Center a few days before the Feb. 18 opener.

Sitting in front of one of the exhibits, Bellamy talks proudly about the theater’s origins and its impact locally, nationally and internationally over the four decades since it began in 1976. At that time he wanted to create a forum for Black voices in the Twin Cities theater community.

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“It’s really something to know that that little 250-seat theater has reached all around the world from St. Paul.”

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“We wanted to see our mothers, fathers, grandmothers, uncles and aunts on that stage, with all the complexities and beauty that we saw. All of the work produced by Penumbra is produced, directed and acted as though there is no one but African Americans in the house.”

The theater started at Hallie Q. Brown Community Center near the Rondo neighborhood, where it remains today. Staging plays written by Blacks and acted by Blacks in a nontraditional cultural location was intentional, admitted Bellamy.

August Wilson exhibit at the Minnesota History Center (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

“I was raised in St. Paul,” he said. “I grew up in this community. It’s important to me that this work be here. It’s important for my daughter [Sarah Bellamy, who was named co-artistic director in 2014] to be here. We were angry during the ’70s. There was a lot of anger about the conditions and depictions of the Black ethos.”

Over the years, Penumbra launched many actors, directors, playwrights and signature plays, including those by August Wilson. A portion of the set for Wilson’s play Fences, which as a movie has been nominated for an Oscar this year, is among the exhibits. The late Wilson (1945-2005) during his time living in St. Paul wrote plays that debuted at Penumbra.

“I’ve played that role [the leading male role in Fences] several times, and directed that play many times,” noted Bellamy. “There are reasons why Fences [is] just coming to the big screen now. August held onto his idea that he wanted an African American director and he wasn’t going to allow that film to be made unless it had [one].”

Bellamy said of the hit movie directed by Denzel Washington, “I think what they ended up with is a beautiful film. It’s not the stage production, nor should it be. The trade-off was an absolutely phenomenal psychological investigation into the background of these characters that you can’t do on stage. It was interesting to watch.”

Penumbra’s “authenticity” has been recognized throughout the theater world, said Bellamy. “I always wanted and always have done art with intent. I always wanted the play as the opening gambit of a conversation with the community. We never had closed rehearsals because I wanted kids to come in and de-mystify this art form, to let them see it’s just hard work.”

Asked his thoughts about the History Center exhibit, Bellamy said he’s impressed with how it is laid it out, “the way they curated this. I know what we did, but I had no idea that we accumulated” so much, he noted. “Forty years of interpreting the African American experience. It’s powerful. The people are powerful. The stories are powerful.”

He credits Senior Exhibit Developer Kate Roberts, who Bellamy called “the guiding philosopher” behind the Penumbra exhibit. “Our goal is to make sure everybody watches these stories and makes some sort of personal reaction,” explained Roberts. “You may have to make a couple of visits — there is a lot to take in.

August Wilson’s first play exhibited at the Minnesota History Center (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

“Anyone who hasn’t heard of the place will get it and be engaged, and there are those who will be insiders, people who know this history as well as anyone. It’s been a pleasure” working with Bellamy and the Penumbra staff in putting together the exhibit, Roberts said.

“When we began, we couldn’t get state arts board funding because they said we were doing community service…because we were in a community center,” noted Bellamy. “Penumbra always has been undercapitalized, and we’ve always had to fight for every dollar [and] never had quite enough. But we survived. We should have gotten more credit for surviving… This exhibit speaks for that survival.

“It’s really something…to know that that little 250-seat [theater] has reached all around the world from St. Paul,” concluded Bellamy. “And by not changing who we are and the essence of who we are, and the sound of who we are, and sharing that beauty with the world.”

 

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.