Q&A: Lou Bellamy, Penumbra Theatre Legend

Sarah Harper


The Penumbra Theatre, located in St. Paul&undefined;s  &undefined;Selby-Dale neighborhood, is the only African-American theater in Minnesota. It&undefined;s also the largest African-American theater in the country.

More of August Wilson&undefined;s works have been produced at Penumbra than any other

theater in the world. And while Wilson is the most famous artist to get started at Penumbra, he&undefined;s certainly not the only artist whose career flourished there.

Penumbra&undefined;s founder and artistic director Lou Bellamy will deliver a lecture to students at the University of Minnesota today in which he&undefined;ll discuss how the Black Arts Movement informed the Penumbra aesthetic.

Thursday&undefined;s event  &undefined;— which will be more of a dialogue than a lecture — is the first in a four-part lecture series curated by professor Dominic Taylor.


Today&undefined;s paper includes an abridged version of the conversation A&&undefined;E had with Lou Bellamy, the founder and artistic director of St. Paul&undefined;s Penumbra Theatre. (Follow this link for a PDF of that page in the paper, and to see a portrait of Bellamy snapped by Daily paparazzi.)

Here is the full interview:

What will you talk to students about during your lecture?

The way in which the Black Arts Movement, or BAM, as it&undefined;s called, informed the aesthetic that we ended up building and coming up with at Penumbra. It [BAM] influenced all of the actors, myself, many of the writers, you know. The whole genesis of the company was to sort of take back, commandeer, begin to have influence over the images, the icons and the iconology, the stories about African Americans.

Primarily, those stories were being told on most of the stages in the country about African Americans, but they weren&undefined;t those people talking about themselves. So even the most well-intentioned attempts at that fell short, because they could only view the culture from the outside. And that&undefined;s pretty dangerous.

So we determined that we were going to have a place where we could tell those stories with all the complicated nature of who those people were.

That&undefined;s long, but that&undefined;s what it&undefined;s about.

And what events led to you creating the Penumbra Theater?

Well, it was a number… First, a milieu in the Twin Cities. I had already been a professional actor and was fairly well making a living, albeit sparse, at area theaters. I became dissatisfied with the kinds of roles I was asked to play. They were essentially one-dimensional. Frequently in those dramas, the African American character stands alone in a sea of white people. So that they become ambassadors for the race. Every decision, every word they speak has an abnormal weight to it because they&undefined;re there to represent the entire race. It&undefined;s like putting a woman in there and expecting her to speak for all women. When we elected to provide a space that was peopled by lots of African Americans, then different kinds of stories — nuances and so-forth — began to emerge. And then, I think that when when Twin Cities audiences became familiar with that and looked at that, they said, &undefined;This is closer to the life we know than that other view.&undefined; And then you began to see African Americans showing up on all of the area stages.


Back in ”976, in what type of environment did Penumbra spring up? And how is the world different now?

Still, I think that the creation of the African American ethos is up for grabs. You still have an undue amount of influence from outside the culture saying what that is. When you hear Newt Gingrich, for instance, talk about welfare mothers — that&undefined;s an attempt to define a population from someone outside of the population. That is still out there.. There is still contestation for the ability to define this culture and what it is about, and its complexity. I still think there&undefined;s room for our job. But at that time, there were even less places where that could happen. Where an interrogation of the human condition could be successfully mounted inside of the African American culture. It was thought that that could only happen if one used Shakespeare, or Chekhov or something like that.


At what point in your life did you know you wanted to be a theatre artist?

That&undefined;s a tough question, because it&undefined;s hard to admit that you&undefined;re an artist. Because it seems frivolous. So it took me a long time, and I sort of hedged my bets with teaching and whatever else before I had to come out of the closet as an artist. I think that it has to do with recognizing your gifts and how you best can communicate with people.
I often say that being an artist is the way I exercise my citizenship. It&undefined;s the way I can speak, it&undefined;s the way I feel empowered to speak. That came relatively late in the development of Penumbra. I would think that for the first five or ten years, all of us were just sort of experimenting and just so happy to tell some stories. I don&undefined;t think any of us thought it was going to turn into a real career. But it has. I think you sort of paint yourself into a corner.

Can you tell me more about your relationship with August Wilson?

We&undefined;ve produced more of his work than anyone in the world. And that&undefined;s primarily because we did some of the earlier works that no one else will ever do, I think. Those plays established us as, you know, probably the premiere presenter of his work. He said himself that many times the definitive productions of his work were done on that stage – a production of &undefined;Piano Lesson&undefined; being a specific one that he used to refer to all the time. As his fortunes grew, ours grew as well. And the artists that were doing that work got opportunities to do that work in other theaters around the country and so forth. That&undefined;s how that went.

Cool. And the meaning of the word penumbra – how did that relate to the naming of the theater? What&undefined;s the meaning behind all that?

There was a writers&undefined; group in New York in the early 70s called the Umbrans. And I was aware of that.
When we first began, we began as part of a federal program. The community center that hired me at first – that&undefined;s the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center — hired me to administer a grant that they had already procured. I asked a marketing person to suggest names, and he suggested a number of them. One of them was Penumbra. It immediately called to me that old writers&undefined; group in New York that was part of the Black Arts Movement. They coined it all. They initiated all the kinds of things that the Black Arts Movement stood for. So I was sort of enamored by that.

And then when I really looked up the Latin term, penumbra, it is &undefined;almost an umbra,&undefined; or almost a full shadow. It sort of symbolized the way in which art is created, and the marginalization of African Americans in the country. Also, color gradations in the community. All that sort of stuff. It just had all these multiple resonances. It caught my imagination, so that&undefined;s the one I selected.


In terms of the community in St. Paul and Minneapolis – like, the immediate community – what do you think the community does for Penumbra and what does Penumbra do for the community?

Well, the way I describe who we are is that we are a professional theater. Fully professional — high production values, all that sort of stuff. But we&undefined;re a professional theater inside of a community. And that presupposes a special kind of relationship between the theater and the community. One of the tenets of the Black Arts Movement was that the black artist eschews any attempt to separate him or herself from their community. So it&undefined;s important that we stay in communication with our community. That we&undefined;re, as W.E.B. Dubois said, &undefined;Of, by, for and near&undefined; the community. What happens is when this art emerges, t gets picked up by the larger community, and it&undefined;s taken You&undefined;ve got bankers rapping now. What we want to do is stay inside the community and make that work inside the community, for the community, about the community and near them. I remember a lady once coming to me and saying to me — it was a black lady, an older woman — and she said, &undefined;You know, you&undefined;re really good.&undefined; And I think I was acting then. I kind of kicked my toes. She said, &undefined;No, no. You&undefined;re really good.&undefined; And I began to look her in the eyes. And she said to me the most telling thing: &undefined;Why are you here?&undefined; Isn&undefined;t that amazing? Because she&undefined;s used to everything good being skimmed off and taken away. That really taught me something.


Tell me how you were involved in the conception of the U of M lecture series on Penumbra.

I retired there recently, in the last year. I gave a speech. In the speech, I mentioned that the U of M, and the U of M theater department particularly, has had a large relationship with Penumbra. But it isn&undefined;t one that has been formalized.

Very often, in our shows, you will find that out of the four or five designers, three to five of them will be peers and colleagues of mine from  &undefined;the university. You will often find graduate students doing internships, undergraduates studying the literature, you&undefined;ll find a dramaturg that is a graduate student on an August Wilson fellowship.

So we had sort of this informal relationship. In that speech, I thought that I might challenge the University to formalize that relationship, and really invest in it and make the most of it.

I think that this lecture series, that is curated and really headed by Professor Dominic Taylor – this is some of the reaction to that challenge.

Penumbra, being arguably the most influential African American theater in the country, could be the site of tremendous learning and experience for theater majors at the University of Minnesota. And so we&undefined;re beginning to mine that relationship now, and this is one of the fruits of that endeavor.

And when you were a professor here, what was your experience like teaching college students?

I love students. And I love to interact with them. I love watching that light come on – there&undefined;s nothing better when they say, &undefined;I got it! I get it!&undefined; And that&undefined;s what I think that&undefined;s what any teacher lives for — to be in the presence of a student when that synthesis takes place. When they connect the dots. Because that&undefined;s the jump in learning&undefined; that&undefined;s the giant step. And you want to be there when it happens so you can then focus it.

So much of the literature that I taught in the theater department were plays and essays and so forth that most of those students had never seen — be they African American or not — because that line of study largely falls outside of American history or American theatre history. It&undefined;s taught sort of as an addendum. So when I would make these things available to them, they were invariably surprised beyond measure that such a large tradition of theater existed — and one that they knew nothing about.

A strange thing seems to happen with a lot of African American literature, especially in theater — as the dominant society sort of subsumes that creativity, it loses the strings, or the impetus, from which it began.

Text-based movement, for instance, is something that avant-garde artists all over the United States claim a hold of — that they began it. Well I know that that started with Ntozake Shange and her play &undefined;For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide.&undefined; That&undefined;s the first of that kind of text-based movement. When you begin to point out these kinds of relationships, it really catches fire in students and they&undefined;re really excited about it. I&undefined;ve always loved being around that.

Tell me more about your educational efforts at Penumbra.

Well, there are lots of them now. Sarah Bellamy, my daughter, is our education director. She&undefined;s associate artistic director. She has expanded what I began as a sort of a craft-based approach to teaching young people to more of a philosophical and social justice-based approach.

So what we have is a summer institute now that is a national model for organizations all over. It draws some of the most excellent of high school students who come in and work with our artists for four or five weeks during the summer. And it has a real social justice bent to the education — they become responsible consumers of art. All of them have a social justice imperative and a project that they do out in their community. And they begin to see the power of art in social change. She&undefined;s also begun what she calls the Wilson Project. She&undefined;s interviewed company members from as far back as we could, those that are still alive. She&undefined;s got those people on tape and those things are being transcribed so that they&undefined;re part of that Givens collection that&undefined;s at the University of Minnesota. They can find all the ephemera, all the documents. They can hear all the company members talking about the art – how they think they&undefined;ve influenced it, what&undefined;s good about it, what&undefined;s bad about it. The idea being that this experiment that is Penumbra is of great worth to anyone who wants to study it, and we want to make it available. And that&undefined;s largely due to the educational efforts of Sarah.

What role does art play in social change?

Art is part of us all the time. It&undefined;s kind of a western reality to try to separate art from life. In many cultures, there&undefined;s not even a word for art. They call it a house, or a shirt. We separate that.

Art can be used as a real powerful tool to wake people up. You shake them in their seats. You make them emotionally invest in something. And then interrupt that emotional investment with a philosophical message or an interrogation of right and wrong. Art can reach across cultures. It&undefined;s man unarmored, even if it&undefined;s just for a second, where you can penetrate and use that as an opportunity to widen understanding. To make us better.

Looking back at what you&undefined;ve accomplished in your career, what do you feel most strongly about?

I think the sheer accumulation of knowledge and experience. When a jazz musician begins to create jazz — before they can mix all that stuff together to allow themselves to step off the cliff and create something, to begin something that they don&undefined;t know where it&undefined;s going to go or how it&undefined;s going to come out — you have to have mastered all of the elements of that art form before you can take that step. And I&undefined;m at a place in my career right now where that has happened for me. And I put things together in, for me, unique ways now, because I&undefined;ve got that kind of confidence and a mastery of the medium that allows you to do that kind of stuff, to mix it up in all these ways. I&undefined;m really happy to be here, and proud of that. Because I think it allows you to create things that you&undefined;re no longer following your nose as an artist. You&undefined;re in the moment and able to be open and create all kinds of things. Does that make sense?

Yes, it does. And looking forward, what are your goals?

Since I am getting long in the tooth, as they say, first we&undefined;ve got to make sure that the work that all these wonderful artists did at Penumbra is carried on. So that means that we&undefined;ve got to have a succession plan, and we&undefined;re moving in that direction right now. So that&undefined;s first. Once that&undefined;s clear, and it&undefined;s becoming clearer all the time, I would like to begin to share what we&undefined;ve learned here on a national and international basis. And that&undefined;s beginning to happen as well. Our national footprint is widening all the time. I&undefined;d like to do that. That&undefined;s where I&undefined;m going to put my eggs — in that basket.

In your position at the Penumbra, do you have any sort of day-to-day routine?

Oh, yeah. The Internet has made it such that we can work all the time. So I work at home. I work wherever I am. I tend to come into the office for four or five hours, maybe less, a day so I&undefined;m integrated into what everyone is doing. Then I tend to go to the library, to a movie, to different archives — those kinds of things, doing research. Thinking about the next season, or the next artistic thing I&undefined;m going to try to do. Sort of waiting for the muse to strike.

And what are you doing in Wisconsin right now?

Well I have a cabin in northern Wisconsin. And I&undefined;m in the outdoors a lot. I hunt, fish, hike — all that sort of stuff. This is rejuvenation for me. I&undefined;ve been in Indiana directing for about a month and I just got back. I have got to come up here and find my center.

Where in Indiana?

Indianapolis. At the IRT – the Indiana Repertory Theater.

Do you do a lot of national directing?

I&undefined;ll be going to Cleveland to remount the show that&undefined;s down there in Indiana. I just got back from Washington D.C. and Hartford, Connecticut. So yeah, I get out. That&undefined;s what I mean about sharing this aesthetic that these wonderful artists created at Penumbra with as many people as I possibly can. It&undefined;s got an authenticity about it that I really want people to see. Because once they see it, they demand it. They demand that kind of truth.

Do you have a directing philosophy?

I value the playwright&undefined;s intent very, very much. I try to provide an up-to-date and vital interpretation of the playwright&undefined;s intent. I&undefined;m getting ready to do &undefined;The Amen Corner&undefined; at the Guthrie, a James Baldwin play. We&undefined;ll do that in the spring, and I&undefined;m preparing for that right now. I will try to give an up-to-date interpretation of James Baldwin&undefined;s intent. Life is different than ”956. Some of the issues still resonate. Some of them manifest themselves in different kinds of ways.

What I try to do is find that kernel that is Baldwin and then interpret that for a contemporary audience.

That means, of course, that I have got to be very, very sure in my interpretation of what it is he was after.

The other thing I attempt to do is ensemble work. That means that it takes the entire group of people to make the production live. You won&undefined;t see stars, necessarily, in productions that I&undefined;ve directed. I try to, as much as possible, get that ensemble feel for the work. Which is, again, a reflection of the Black Arts Movement — the importance of community and so forth. That&undefined;s what I try to put on the stage.