Penumbra Theatre Company exhibit now open at Minnesota History Center

Through award-winning and powerful performances, Penumbra Theater Company has been a medium that express African American voices through art and theater while evoking emotions, conversations and awareness.

Penumbra Theatre Company founder and Co-Artistic Director Lou Bellamy has been leading the theater for 40 years. Bellamy is an OBIE Award-winning director, accomplished actor and a former Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Theatre Arts and Dance for 38 years. (Sun Focus photo by Sarah Burghardt)
Penumbra Theatre Company founder and Co-Artistic Director Lou Bellamy has been leading the theater for 40 years. Bellamy is an OBIE Award-winning director, accomplished actor and a former Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Theatre Arts and Dance for 38 years. (Sun Focus photo by Sarah Burghardt)

Coinciding with Black History Month, the Minnesota History Center has opened “Penumbra Theatre at 40: Art, Race and a Nation on Stage,” on Feb. 18. The exhibit honors St. Paul-based Penumbra, a professional African American theater celebrating its 40th anniversary season. The exhibit offers decades of Penumbra’s artistic expression represented through artifacts, theater props and costumes, multimedia interactive pieces and more. Years of rich and local history are packed into the exhibit, allowing Minnesota History Center attendees to fully immerse themselves into the Penumbra experience.

The beginning

Penumbra first began tucked away in the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center in the Martin Luther King Center building. The community center wanted to invest more into art programming, as this gave community members a platform to craft a voice through visual arts, music, literature and theatre. In 1976, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) awarded the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center a $150,000 grant to develop its arts program. University of Minnesota theatre arts graduate student Lou Bellamy was appointed as art director and began to hire actors and thus began Penumbra’s first season.

Penumbra Theatre Company began to present artistically excellent productions and quickly earned the attention of Twin Cities critics, agreeing that these performances were worth watching.

Humbly stating that being the founder gives him more credit than he deserves, Bellamy said Penumbra came to be a success through inspirational works that redefine the consciousness of its audience. He said Penumbra works to produce art that “cleaves to the heart of the human condition, using the African American experience as a prism for which to view the world.”

“It’s a combination of the community and absolute geniuses that are writing work that challenges and teaches experiences,” Bellamy said. “It’s about everything just coming together to make its own unique style.”

Bellamy said that Penumbra is known for a “confrontational style” during performances.

“And it wasn’t because started out to do that. The stage was so small that we started acting in the aisles. We came to develop a style and it feeds off the literature and talent. It just comes together in a wonderful mix,” he said.

Penumbra today

The exhibit delves into Penumbra’s early years, showing its roots in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood and sets the scene for African American artistic history. (Sun Focus photo by Sarah Burghardt)
The exhibit delves into Penumbra’s early years, showing its roots in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood and sets the scene for African American artistic history. (Sun Focus photo by Sarah Burghardt)

Penumbra has since developed into one of only three professional African American theaters in the nation that offers a full season of performances.

Described as “art with intent,” Penumbra’s productions depict emotional, relevant and valuable experiences from an African American perspective.

“We do art with the intent to make the world better, to change society, to somehow make us understand ourselves better and treat ourselves better,” Bellamy said.

Additionally, Penumbra works to ignite social change through a “Let’s Talk Series” program. Hosted by Co-Artistic Director and daughter of Bellamy, Sarah Bellamy leads the company’s community engagement efforts. The program focuses on challenging conversations around issues of social justice, equity and the arts.

Sarah Bellamy also heads Penumbra’s Summer Institute, a highly regarded leadership training program for teens. The Summer Institute allows youth to turn their passion for the arts into strengths to stand up for social change, develop critical thinking skills, and celebrating differences.

“Penumbra Theatre at 40”

The exhibit begins with a room that delves into Penumbra’s early years, showing its roots in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood and sets the scene for African American artistic history. Attendees can then move onto a large room filled with costumes and props from Penumbra performances, a portion of the set of the play “Fences” by August Wilson, and multimedia presentations that offer a powerful and historic experience, among many other interactive displays.

The exhibit also features artifacts from the Givens Collection of African American Literature at the University of Minnesota Libraries. This rare collection of books, along with the Lou Bellamy book collection, depicts inspiration and thought-provoking literary pieces.

Reflecting back on decades of performances and memories makes Bellamy emotional and grateful. He shared that there has never been any accumulation of Penumbra’s productions quite like this.

“It’s just so powerful,” Bellamy said. “The accumulation of the work first strikes me, but the other thing is that, what has just been so wonderful is to see the way the Minnesota Historical Society has valued, and cared for and put this exhibit together in a kind of a way that you can just feel the love.”

Additional programs

The Minnesota History Center is also offering additional programs related to the Penumbra exhibit. There will be Penumbra performances featuring actors performing short scenes and monologues inside the exhibit, happening on the second Tuesday or every month, March through July, from 6 to 8 p.m. “A Conversation About Penumbra Theatre: Past and Present,” will feature Lou Bellamy and company members, as well as Star Tribune theatre critic Rohan Preston for a conversation about creating theatre about race in America, on April 25, from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

The Minnesota History Center, 345 W. Kellogg Boulevard, St. Paul, will feature the “Penumbra Theatre at 40: Art, Race and a Nation on Stage” exhibit from Feb. 18 to July 30. Visit www.minnesotahistorycenter.org/exhibits/penumbra-theatre-at-40 for more information.

Contact Sarah Burghardt at [email protected]

In spring 2014, Penumbra staged “The Ballad of Emmett Till” by Ifa Bayeza, a play based on the 1955 brutal murder of a 14-year-old boy in Mississippi who was accused of flirting with a white woman.
Penumbra’s play was part of the theatre’s “Season of Hope.” The previous summer, George Zimmerman had been acquitted in the death of Trayvon Martin. Parallels between the stories of Till and Martin were obvious; Penumbra held post-play discussions that explored these themes.From left: Sha’ Cage, T. Mychael Rambo, Mikell Sapp, Darrick Mosley, H. Adam Harris. (Image courtesy Penumbra Theatre Company; photo by Allen Weeks)
August Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “Fences” in 1987. The play is set in 1957 and tells the story of Troy Maxson, a man who could have been a baseball star, but the color barrier prevented him from  making it out of the Negro Leagues. His bitterness over his lost chances spills onto his family—especially his son, Cory, a gifted football player whose dreams are dashed by his father. Penumbra’s first staging of the play was in 1990.
A portion of the set from the 2016 production of “Fences” will be on display in the exhibit. The play was directed by Lou Bellamy and co-produced by the Arizona Theatre Company, Indiana Repertory Theatre and Milwaukee Repertory Theater. (Image courtesy Arizona Theatre Company; photo by Tim Fuller)
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August Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “Fences” in 1987. The play is set in 1957 and tells the story of Troy Maxson, a man who could have been a baseball star, but the color barrier prevented him from  making it out of the Negro Leagues. His bitterness over his lost chances spills onto his family—especially his son, Cory, a gifted football player whose dreams are dashed by his father. Penumbra’s first staging of the play was in 1990. A portion of the set from the 2016 production of “Fences” will be on display in the exhibit. The play was directed by Lou Bellamy and co-produced by the Arizona Theatre Company, Indiana Repertory Theatre and Milwaukee Repertory Theater. (Image courtesy Arizona Theatre Company; photo by Tim Fuller)