Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Penumbra Theatre celebrates 40 years with a change in leadership.

In January, Lou Bellamy, the founder and artistic director of Penumbra Theatre in Saint Paul, assumed a new title: founder and artistic director emeriti. And while Bellamy has turned over the operation of Minnesota’s only African-American theater to his daughter, Sarah, who has been serving as co-artistic director since 2014, he plans to continue to make his voice heard.

“I’m going to be like the old man standing in the corner, pointing my finger and saying, ‘Remember why we did that' when the theater was founded," Lou says with a smile, before adding. “It’s important to know where you came from to know where you’re going.”

The theme of Penumbra’s current 40th anniversary season is Still We Rise. Sarah says she chose this theme to build on “40 years of the excellent work we want to continue in a spirit of perseverance and excellence.”

Penumbra, which has been in the same Rondo location since Bellamy founded it in 1976, is looking back at its storied past with a comprehensive exhibit at the Minnesota History Center called “Penumbra Theatre at 40: Art, Race and a Nation on Stage” on view through July 30. The exhibit includes theater artifacts, a multimedia presentation and a portion of the set of Fences, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by former Saint Paul resident August Wilson, who was a member of the Penumbra company when writing the play in the early 1980s.  In 1989, Lou Bellamy directed Penumbra’s first production of Fences and also played the lead role of Troy Maxson; the show has been on stage at Penumbra twice since then.

Sorting through 40 years of memorabilia to help the History Center assemble the exhibit was a bittersweet experience for Lou. “For me to look back at these pictures, it’s amazing,” he says. “We started this theater in this community center and today, it’s arguably the most influential African-American theater in the country. I’m the only one left who remembers all the people who have been part of Penumbra and the original company members.”

Although Sarah essentially grew up at the theater, she began her tenure there in 2012 as head of the education program. Since then, she’s launched the Summer Institute for young people and the Let’s Talk series focused on issues relevant to social justice and the arts. Lou says Sarah’s new role will allow her to move Penumbra forward in “a thoughtful and integrated way.”

For the final show of the 40th season, Sarah selected GIRL Shakes Loose, a world premiere musical directed by May Adrales, which runs from April 20 to May 14. After seeing the production at the Lark Play Development Center in New York City, Sarah says she knew she wanted to share it with Minnesota audiences.

The next phase of Lou Bellamy’s career will find him directing productions across the country, including a show at Penumbra next season. His daily presence will be missed by the Penumbra staff and perhaps especially by his daughter. “Working with my father for the past several years has been an honor,” she says. “And he’s fun—we have a good time together.”

Sarah is excited about “the incredible opportunity” to lead Penumbra into the future. “Penumbra has become a unique voice. We want to become more deeply rooted in the local community while taking our place as a national leader to more fully articulate our mission.”