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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