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Penumbra Theatre founder defines American black stage

Lou Bellamy's vision is that everything is performed as if there were only black people in the audience.

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"I always liked showing off," Bellamy says. And "there were more girls in theater than at the track." But he was quickly hooked on a deeper level. "You can't be around that literature and not have it change you," he says. What has always been particularly meaningful for him, he says, is the way black drama – everything from works like the abolitionist drama "The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom" to Wilson's plays – has allowed him to find his place in history. "I went from being a spectator of history to being a participant. It was empowering."

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After graduation, a job opened up as the cultural director of a community center. Bellamy jumped at the chance to use it to create his own theater company. For Bellamy, it was an opportunity to do black theater correctly. In the shows he saw, he says, "I wasn't seeing my grandmother, my grandfather, up there." He insists that black theater – which he defines as stories of the black experience, rooted in the black community, as told by blacks – can only be done correctly with a deep understanding of black literature and culture, including the impact of slavery. Without that background, Bellamy says, a director is likely to overlook or misread clues embedded in the text – everything from West-African story motifs to the tendency of a race cowed by slavery to hide learning rather than to celebrate it. Also, says Bellamy, when it comes to contemporary black drama, some in the white theater community just don't get the basics of urban life. He still laughs remembering a white critic who saw a Penumbra production and missed every clue indicating that a character was a drug dealer. "There wasn't a black person in the audience who didn't know that," he says.

That first year, Bellamy put together a lineup of six plays, despite the fact, he now says, "I hadn't a clue what I was doing."

That was 1976. Two years later, Wilson came to St. Paul, invited by a member of Penumbra's company. At the time, Wilson was known as a poet who had done some theater. "He had never seen a black theater company with such good production values," Bellamy recalls. "He wondered if he could write anything good enough for this stage."

"Black Bart and the Sacred Hills," was his first attempt. "It was rough," says Bellamy, "but you could see that he had something." Then came "Malcolm X," a one-man play starring Bellamy. After that was "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."

Wilson moved on to Seattle and fame. But Penumbra had been noticed. "He was our 'in' to a larger world," says Bellamy.

In 1995, Bellamy first crossed the Mississippi River to work with Minneapolis's famed Guthrie Theatre on a rarely performed black work called "Big White Fog." It made headlines because Bellamy was known for his hostility to white productions of black drama.

It's still a notion that rubs him a bit raw. "I know black history of theater. I know what's on the line and why," he says. "When they're not doing it right, I loathe it." But he says he finally decided it was better to collaborate than to criticize.