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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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So the opportunities have opened up. Bellamy has cooperated twice with the Guthrie on plays by Wilson. In 2007 he directed Wilson's "Two Trains Running" at New York's Signature Theatre, a production that won an Obie and a Lucille Lortel Awards for Best Off-Broadway revival. This year he directed a production of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" at Washington's Kennedy Center and will direct plays in Cleveland; Kansas City, Mo.; Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz.

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Yet Bellamy hates to leave Penumbra, with its well-worn 300-seat theater only five blocks from his childhood home. "Why do I have to go to New York or Chicago to become a good person and practice my vocation?" he asks. Working in larger theaters, he admits, is a fun opportunity to use "all the bells and whistles." Yet, when audiences enjoy one of his productions elsewhere, he says he still thinks longingly, "Oh, if only they'd seen it [at Penumbra]!"

Bellamy's Minnesota roots run deep. He's an outdoorsman and avid hunter. And he has a genuine admiration for his white Minnesota audiences. "The extent of your humanity is your ability to see yourself in people who are vastly different from you," he says respectfully (although he can't help laughing as he describes watching white Minnesotans clapping awkwardly on the 1-3 beat at Langston Hughes's "Black Nativity.")

Bellamy has made his mark. "In the field of American theater, Lou Bellamy is a sequoia," says Rohan Preston, theater critic at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. Mr. Preston cites a directing style that "combines muscular intellect with jazzy lyricism" in addition to the humanism that has made Bellamy a strong mentor to more than one generation of actors. As Bellamy himself might say, says Preston, "he's a major dude."

But Bellamy's vision of himself is principally as "an evangelist" for black theater, and now is his chance to preach from a national podium. At home, he says, Penumbra is solid without him. Among other pieces that have fallen in place have been the appointment of his daughter, Sarah Bellamy, to head up Penumbra's educational program – and hopefully to help pass black theater on to yet another generation.

For Bellamy, this time of life is a good one. Over the course of more than 30 years you learn a lot, he says. "I'm now at the top of my craft and that's a wonderful place to be."