Penumbra Theatre Company

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The Penumbra Theatre Company, an African-American theatre company in Saint Paul, Minnesota, was founded by Lou Bellamy in 1976. The theater has been recognized for its artistic quality and its role in launching the careers of playwrights including two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner August Wilson.[1]

The 135-seat theater serves as a space to showcase the exploration of the African American experience. Each year, Penumbra performs for over 40,000 people and conducts educational outreach workshops for more than 5,000 students. The theater employs more actors, choreographers, dancers, directors, and administrators of color than all other theaters in Minnesota combined.[2] Located at St Paul's Hallie Q. Brown Community Center in the Martin Luther King Center building, the Penumbra is the largest one of three African American theaters in the United States and is arguably considered the most influential in history.[3]


Due to displacement and segregation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many African Americans were aided by settlement homes for not only economic and social services, but programming for the arts as well. The Hallie Q. Brown Community Center of St. Paul, Minnesota, much like the South Side Settlement house in Chicago and Henry Street Settlement house in New York, wanted to invest more in its art programming because it gave community members the tools to craft a voice within a community through visual arts, music, literature, and theatre.[4] These centers were not only a popular outlet for entertainment, but also a critical part of the Black Arts Movement where African Americans spoke out about racial inequalities and allowed them to shape a sense of identity. The Hallie Q. Brown Community Center’s second executive director, Henry R. Thomas, drafted a construction plan to incorporate a fully functional theater within its Martin Luther King Jr. facility to support these demands.[3]

In 1976, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) awarded the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center a $150,000 grant[5] to further develop its cultural arts programming. The CETA appointed Lou Bellamy, a theatre arts graduate student at University of Minnesota, as the center’s cultural arts director where he later founded the Penumbra Theatre Company.

1977-1978 Productions[edit]

Eden (1976) by Steve Carter was the first production to launch of the 1977-1978 season of the Penumbra Theatre Company. It explores diversity of ethnicities within the African American community. The Negro Ensemble Company had recently premiered this performance,[6] giving the Penumbra a direct tie to the Black Arts movement. Another relation to the movement is Ed Bullins, a prominent editor, theorist, and playwright[7] who wrote Penumbra’s second production, the 1975 Broadway transfer of The Taking of Miss Jane. The third production, Heartland, Louisiana, showcases original work by Penumbra’s resident playwright, Horace Bond, who was Bellamy’s former graduate advisor and mentor. Bond focused mainly on developing African American productions, particularly in the south. This proved successful in captivating and connecting African American audiences who either grew up in the heavily segregated south and moved to northern cities or had relatives that had done so. For the fourth production, the Company staged the historic work of William Wells Brown’s The Escape; or, a Leap for Freedom. Penumbra chose to actively produce plays that dealt with the implications and practices of minstrelsy in an effort to further investigate the history of African American theatre.

Mission Statement[edit]

Penumbra’s goals are (from their website):

  • To increase public awareness of the significant contributions of African Americans in creating a diversified American theatrical tradition.
  • To encourage and facilitate a culturally diverse and all-inclusive America by using theatre to teach, criticize, comment and model.
  • To use theatre to create an American mythology that includes African Americans and other peoples of color in every thread of the fabric of our society.
  • To continue to maintain and stabilize a black performing arts community.

Establishing Moral Precedent[edit]

The Penumbra Theatre Company established many of its core mission statements and values within its first season of production with the help of the core programs established at the Hallie Q. Brown Community center. First off, productions provided low ticket costs, child day care services, and special matinee performances for senior citizens.[3] Secondly, supports and encourages a multiethnic community of members, similar to the Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis. Many company members worked at Mixed Blood Theatre simultaneously with Penumbra or previously, including Bellamy being one of its original members.[3] Bellamy soon left Mixed Blood theatre in pursuit of his new creative control as cultural arts director at Hallie Q. Brown Community Center. Penumbra initially identified itself as a multiracial company. While the company’s members, staff, and audience has always been ethnically diverse, their leadership and productions have a distinguishable dominance of African American culture.[3] As its first few seasons continued, it began to fully emerge as an African American theatre company.

Original Ensemble Company[edit]

Original Staff[edit]

  • Ken Evins
  • W. J. E. “Strider” Hammer
  • Scott Peters
  • Anne Deem
  • Rick Thompson
  • Ron Schultz
  • Mary Winchell

Notable Company Members[edit]

August Wilson at the Penumbra[edit]

The Penumbra Theater company worked with Playwright and Poet August Wilson early in his career, helping the writer transition from poet to playwright. August Wilson’s first play, Black Bart and the Sacred Hills (1977), and later Jitney! (1982) premiered at the Penumbra Theater. His work is still regularly played on the Penumbra stage.[8]

“We are what we imagine ourselves to be, and we can only imagine what we know to be possible. The founding of Penumbra Theatre enlarged that possibility. And its corresponding success provokes the community to a higher expectation of itself. I became a playwright because I saw where my chosen profession was being sanctioned by a group of black men and women who were willing to invest their lives and their talent in assuming a responsibility for our presence in the world and the conduct of our industry as black Americans.”

- August Wilson, Written to commemorate the 20th anniversary of The Penumbra Theatre Company in 1996[3]

Lou Bellamy[edit]

Bellamy founded the Penumbra theater in 1976, and will stand as the artistic director of the company until 2017, when the position will be filled by his daughter, Sarah Bellamy.[9] He has served as the Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Theatre Arts and Dance for over 30 years.[10] Lou Bellamy is largely credited for the artistic success of the Penumbra theater, as he is responsible for hiring and gestating some of the theater’s more notorious artists (Including writer August Wilson and director Claude Purdy).[3] In May 2001, Lou Bellamy won an Obie award for his directorial contribution to August Wilson's Two Trains Running.[11]

Outreach Initiatives[edit]

In addition to theatrical performances, the Penumbra Theater also runs public events, dialogues, workshops and a variety of other events aimed at social awareness. Programs include workshops on race, a summer institute for teenagers, and performances and internships for students.[12]

The African-American Theater History Project[edit]

The African American Theater History Project (also known as Umbra Search), In a partnership between the Penumbra Theater Company and The University of Minnesota with financial support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation,[13] addresses the lack of access to primary documentation regarding the history and culture of African American theater. The project’s aim is to collaborate with other African American theater companies to collect, catalog and archive important historical documents, and make this information publicly available in an online catalog to promote awareness and education regarding the history of African American theater.[14]

Critical Reception and Awards[edit]

  • In 2000, Danny Glover presented the Penumbra Theatre company with the Jujamcyn Award in New York City, putting the company on the top list of regional theatres.[2]
  • Ivy Award for Excellence in Acting: Dennis Spears for his portrayal of Nat Cole in I Wish You Love.
  • Ivy Award for Excellence in Acting: Jasmine Hughes, acting in Sunset Baby.


  1. ^ Hill, Errol; James V. Hatch (2005). A History of African American Theatre. Cambridge University Press. pp. 471–72. ISBN 978-0-521-62443-5. 
  2. ^ a b "History". Penumbra Theatre. Retrieved 2016-11-14. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Mahala, Macelle (2013). Penumbra: The Premiere Stage for African American Drama. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. p. 9.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name ":0" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  4. ^ G. Hill, Errol; V. Hatch, James (2003). A History of African American Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 412–13. 471–72. 
  5. ^ "Board of Directors Meeting Minutes". Penumbra Theatre Company Archives. 
  6. ^ Edwards, Gus (1978). "Production History". New York: Dramatist Play Services. Retrieved 11 November 2016. 
  7. ^ Sell, Mike (2001). "[Ed.] Bullins as Editorial Performer:Textual Power and the Limits of Performance in the Black Arts Movement". Theatre Journal. no. 3. 
  8. ^ "Repertoire". Penumbra Theatre. Retrieved 2016-11-14. 
  9. ^ "Sarah Bellamy will take over at Penumbra Theatre". Star Tribune. Retrieved 2016-11-14. 
  10. ^ "Lou Bellamy". Penumbra Theatre. Retrieved 2016-11-14. 
  11. ^ "Minnesota State Mankato grad Lou Bellamy wins Obie Award — Minnesota State University, Mankato (MSU) – 2007-05-23". Retrieved 2016-11-14. 
  12. ^ "Services". Penumbra Theatre. Retrieved 2016-11-14. 
  13. ^ "Umbra: Search African American History". Umbra: Search African American History. Retrieved 2016-11-14. 
  14. ^ "The African American Theater History Project Seeks Participants — TCG Circle". Retrieved 2016-11-14. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 44°56′57″N 93°7′23″W / 44.94917°N 93.12306°W / 44.94917; -93.12306