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Penumbra Theatre Company

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Penumbra Theatre Company, ca. 1990

Penumbra Theatre Company, ca. 1990. Artistic director Lou Bellamy stands at center. From Penumbra Theatre Company records (GV002), Archie Givens, Sr. Collection of African American Literature, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis.

Penumbra Theatre is one of the premier legacy Black theaters in the United States, and one of the few founded during the Black Arts Movement that survived into the twenty-first century. Penumbra's plays examine universal themes rooted in the daily lives and perspectives of Black folks across a spectrum of African American theater ideologies.

Penumbra was born inside of a settlement house in the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul, and was initially funded by a federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) grant. In 1972, that organization (the Hallie Q. Brown Center) moved into the Martin Luther King Community Recreation Center in the Summit–University neighborhood, and in 1976 it hired Shoestring Playhouse trainee Lou Bellamy to run a cultural arts program while he pursued graduate study. He soon formed a professional company—Penumbra— tied to the principles of the Black Arts Movement (BAM), which championed art made by, for, and about Black people. Bellamy welcomed plays and playwrights directly associated with BAM, including Ed Bullins, Steve Carter, and Horace Bond.

Several original ensemble members shaped the ethos and aesthetic of the company. These included Claude Purdy and August Wilson, who moved to St. Paul in 1977, as well as Faye M. Price, Horace Bond, Marion McClinton, and Abdul Salaam el Razzac. Additional long-term members joined in the 1980s. Wilson in particular left a major impact on the theater, including its position against colorblind casting and multiculturalism.

From its first production, Penumbra offered open rehearsals, child care during performances, and sliding-scale ticket prices. The annual Black Nativity, a musical by Langston Hughes, involved community members and non-actors, the elderly, and children. In its first decade, the theater typically presented plays that centered black masculinity; by the 1990s, however, feminist and womanist productions like for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, Sally's Rape, and Jar the Floor pushed women-centric narratives, female directors and playwrights, and experimental aesthetics onto the stage. Laurie Carlos, a frequent director, playwright, and artistic associate, established the Late Nite program to showcase experimental, collaborative, and non-English speaking artists. In the 2000s, Penumbra grew to include adjacent communities, using the stage to examine relationships among communities of color via Slippery When Wet and Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers. Penumbra's audience often leaned majority white; partly in response, throughout its history the theater staged plays that examined minstrelsy.

While Penumbra consistently joined local and national conferences, fairs, and festivals, two programs in particular supported the theater and its commitment to both artist development and community growth: a playwriting development initiative (the Cornerstone Award from 1981–1995 and OKRA from 2007–2012) and the Summer Institute, an art and justice summer camp for local teenagers.

Funding—or the lack thereof—shaped Penumbra's history as much as its plays and playwrights. Wilson said in a 1996 speech that "Black theater in America is alive, it is vibrant, it is vital…it just isn't funded," and Penumbra's history gives credence to this claim. The company attempted several times to expand or move its facilities and gain an endowment. In one such attempt, in 1998, Penumbra raised $2.2 of a $2.5 million goal set by the state, and thereby lost a total of $8 million in bonds. (By comparison, the Guthrie Theater received funding for a three-stage expansion costing $125 million). At least in part, the shortfall can be attributed to inequity in the funding community, as well as the racial wealth gap, which privileges white donors. Managing director Chris Widdess focused on increasing individual donor funding from 36 percent of donations in 2005 to 45 percent in 2013, which he hoped would counteract fluctuations in the stock market (where foundations invest). Yet the 2013 recession still forced Penumbra to lay off six staff (Dominic Taylor, artistic associate, continued to volunteer his labor) and cancel the season (at the last moment it was saved) to balance the budget.

Penumbra consistently adapted to meet the moment in the 2010s. When it staged August Wilson's Jitney in 2017, for example, it provided cabs to the polls to encourage voting. But Sarah Bellamy, Lou’s daughter, envisioned taking that commitment further. Three years after she took over as sole artistic director in 2020, she announced the transition to Penumbra Center for Racial Healing following the murder of George Floyd. She said in an interview that she hoped they would continue for another forty years.

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Brown, Jeffrey, and Sam Lane. "How This Black Theater Group Is Using Art as a Tool to 'Awaken' People." PBS NewsHour, December 21, 2021.

Butler, Isaac. "Turnovers at the Top: Change the Twin Cities Can Believe In?" American Theater, September 2015.

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⸻ . "Layoffs, Steep Cuts and a Dark Stage for Penumbra." MPRNews, September 6, 2012.

⸻ . "Penumbra Theatre Has Selected New Artistic Director." MPRNews, September 6, 2012.

⸻ . "Black History Comes Alive on a Stage, and in a Database." MPRNews, February 21, 2017.

Curl, Tanner. “MinnPost Festival Spotlight: Sarah Bellamy, Artistic Director at Penumbra Theater, On How Art Can Drive Social Change.” MinnPost, March 30, 2021.

Davis, Angela. “Penumbra Theatre’s Sarah Bellamy on Motherhood, Theater, and Racial Healing.” MPRNews, December 18, 2020.

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⸻ . “Penumbra to Broaden its Focus; Mia’s ‘Foot in the Door’ Goes Virtual.” MinnPost, August 6, 2020.

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⸻ . "Penumbra's 'Jar the Floor' is Warm and Well-Acted." Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 19, 1994.

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Penumbra Theatre Company, ca. 1990
Penumbra Theatre Company, ca. 1990
The cast of Eden
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Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope
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Jelly Belly Don’t Mess with Nobody
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The Piano Lesson
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Sally’s Rape
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Lou Bellamy, August Wilson, and Claude Purdy
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Black Nativity
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Two Trains Running
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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
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Penumbra Theatre Company, 2010s
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Slippery When Wet program
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Turning Point

In 2020, Penumbra Theater announces its transition to Penumbra Center for Racial Healing. The active theater is one of three arms of the organization: art, wellness, and equity. The decision is awarded with windfall funding from Ford and other foundations.



Hallie Q. Brown Settlement House in the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul hires Lou Bellamy as its cultural arts director. Bellamy names his professional theater project “Penumbra.”


Bellamy earns an MA in theater arts from the University of Minnesota. Penumbra performs Eden (by Steve Carter) and The Taking of Miss Janie (by Ed Bullins).


Lou Bellamy welcomes Claude Purdy and August Wilson to Penumbra as collaborators and emerging artists.


Penumbra stages its first August Wilson play: Black Bart and the Sacred Hills, a western based on Wilson's poems.


Lewis Whitlock III starts working at Penumbra as a director and choreographer. (Lou Bellamy calls the constant development of nationally renowned artists such as Whitlock at Penumbra "the farm," and decries losing them, in good humor.)


Penumbra's Summer Institute opens.


Penumbra attends the first National Black Theater Conference, hosted by North Carolina Playhouse and chaired by Maya Angelou. Penumbra attends the conference through 1995.


Penumbra separates from Hallie Q. Brown, its fiscal parent company, and forms its own 501(c)3 organization.


Buoyed by success, including with the plays of August Wilson, the company forms a Black Playwrights Symposium.


Bellamy is appointed associate professor with tenure (following the recommendation and mentorship of Professor John S. Wright) at the University of Minnesota, cementing an evolving collaborative relationship between the institutions.


Penumbra and Bellamy win the Jujamcyn Theaters Award and a $50,000 grant. Bellamy says of their mid-sized organization, "Our budget is just big enough to get us into trouble."


Lou Bellamy receives the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award.


Penumbra stages Raisin in the Sun with the Guthrie Theater and takes full artistic control. The Guthrie and Penumbra had cooperated on productions since the 1997 co-production of Fences on the Guthrie's stage.


Penumbra's board approves Sarah Bellamy to succeed Lou Bellamy, and the father-and-daughter duo embark on a four-year co-artistic directorship.


In January, Sarah Bellamy becomes president and artistic director of Penumbra. She is driven by the goal of turning the empathy created by Penumbra’s plays into social action.


Penumbra opens the Penumbra Center for Racial Healing to offer long-overdue wellness resources to communities as well as equity programming to engender racial justice in Minnesota and other states.