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.
St. Paul, Minn. — I call the Penumbra Theatre box office and explain that I'm a journalist hoping for an interview with Lou Bellamy. The young man on the other end of the line hesitates a moment.
"OK," he finally tells me. "I can give him your information. But I can't make him call you back. Do you understand that?"
Uh oh. Is this going to be a problem?
Lou Bellamy is a man with a reputation for feistiness. ("Incendiary" is another word a journalist once used.) But to my relief, I receive an e-mail within minutes. Sure, he's happy to talk.
It's hard not to be curious about a contrarian like Mr. Bellamy. In 1976, he founded the Penumbra Theatre Company, an all-black repertory theater group in this small Midwestern city where blacks make up only a little over 10 percent of the population. In the struggling field of local theater, such demographics ought to spell disaster. Yet Bellamy was clear from the start that he would not be courting white audiences.
"Everything is performed as if there were only black people in the audience," he says of Penumbra, which uses all-black casts to perform only works by black playwrights. For white people, Bellamy acknowledges, coming to Penumbra "is like being in a foreign country." If white audiences have to work harder, it doesn't worry him. After all, as he once told a journalist, it's "just like what I have to do when I watch Chekhov."
And yet, extra work or not, for more than 30 years, the audiences have come. Last season, Penumbra productions drew 44,000 spectators – largely white. And although there have been years of financial peril (Bellamy says that he has more than once taken out a second mortgage on his house to keep the theater afloat), Penumbra is currently debt-free with a budget of $3 million.
But Bellamy and Penumbra are best known for launching the career of playwright August Wilson. From 1978 to 1990, Mr. Wilson worked with Penumbra and wrote "Fences" and "The Piano Lesson," both of which won Pulitzer Prizes. Bellamy was one of Wilson's first directors, and some say he remains his best.
Bellamy's theatrical success is as unlikely as that of Penumbra's. In the early 1960s he was a student at Mankato State University in Minnesota, running on the track team and majoring in sociology. Ted Paul, a professor there decided he wanted to do a production of "Finian's Rainbow" and needed some black actors. The school had only five or six black students, so Mr. Paul invited them all, and Bellamy accepted.
"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."
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.
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.
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."