A local theatre legend has left us. Terry Bellamy passed away this past week at the age of 70 due to Covid, according to his family. Known for his intensity on stage, exceptional talent, and unyielding dedication to his craft, Bellamy was an original company member at both Penumbra and Mixed Blood. And he was so much more.
“The Black Arts Movement, which he felt a part of, had to do with calling out injustices and a lot of anger,” said Lou Bellamy, Terry’s elder brother and the founder and artistic director emeritus of Penumbra Theatre Company.
“He had the craft, the muscle, and the will to meet those roles head on. He tended to meld with them in ways that people, once they’ve seen it—we’ll just never forget it,” Lou told MPR News.
That has never been truer than when Terry fully embodied the characters of two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, who received his professional debut on the Penumbra stage with the world premiere of “Black Bart and the Sacred Hills” in 1982.
This includes Terry taking on the unforgettable roles of “Booster” in “Jitney,” “Memphis Lee” in “Two Trains Running,” “Gabriel Maxon” in “Fences,” and “Sterling Johnson” in “Radio Golf,” among others.
But there is perhaps no character that Terry is more associated with than that of Levee Green, the same role played by the late Chadwick Boseman in the 2020 motion picture production of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” In fact, you might say that Terry helped create that character himself while taking part in early readings of what would become Wilson’s first Broadway play.
“Playwrights will need to hear their work and submit it to dramatic test,” Lou told MPR News. “The only way to do that is to put it in the hands of an actor and let them pour themselves into it, and as that play developed, it became obvious that there was a connection between the actor and the character that was extraordinary.”
But Terry was more than an actor; he was a director, playwright, educator and dramaturg in his own right.
Moreover, while performing for a multitude of theater companies here in the Twin Cities, he was critically acclaimed and beloved across the nation, gracing the stage at Harlem’s National Black Theatre, Chicago’s Goodman Theater, the Cleveland Playhouse, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, the Indiana Repertory Theatre, and the Hudson Guild Theater in New York City, just to name a few.
Regarding his 2015 performance in “Two Trains Running” in Chicago, critic Emma Reubenstein wrote, “Terry Bellamy delivers a powerful portrayal of restaurant owner Memphis. His authority is grounding, and while each of the other characters seems to chase their dreams and their thoughts in opposite directions at times, his restaurant and his presence seem to unite them in the most salient of ways.”
Likewise, writing about the Cleveland production of “Radio Golf” for the News-Herald, Bob Ableman said, “No stranger to Wilson’s work, Bellamy does a wonderful job bringing out all the delicate comedy woven into this drama, and he uses Vicki Smith’s magnificent set—a decaying office space surrounded by the squalor of abandoned businesses, boarded up windows and graffiti—to full dramatic advantage.”
In addition to all of the critical acclaim, Terry took home a number of honors that highlighted both his brilliance as a stage actor and his indelible impact in the theater world. These include the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for stellar performances in “Waiting for Godot” and “Boseman and Lena,” The Playwrights’ Center Many Voices Fellowship, Hallie Q. Brown Community Center’s William W. (Billie) Griffin Award for Outstanding Contributions to Penumbra Theater Company, and many others
Still, despite all the accolades, this work had such a deeper meaning to Terry. “Art is the pathway, the avenue, for Black people to show our humanity,” he told the Star Tribune’s Rohan Preston in 2021. “It’s a way toward justice and healing of the gaping wound of slavery that America wants to dance around.”
Of his indomitable legacy, Terry’s niece and Penumbra President Sarah Bellamy exquisitely writes:
“As an artist, Terry was a fighter, his approach was calm, calculating, and clever. He would attack the work and sometimes in rehearsal the target shifted, maybe because Penumbra was one of the few places in the world where Black men could safely discharge their anger at a world that wouldn’t let them stand up in the fullness of their power and potential.
“That, too, is sacred… Terry defined much of the early aesthetic at Penumbra, a quality that simply isn’t replicated anywhere else. It was a style he created in collaboration with the early ensemble and his older brother, Louis, the two speaking sometimes without talking, a shorthand between them that was about growing up together here in St. Paul, about wanting to make the community proud.”
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