Rob Penny

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Rob Penny
Born Robert Lee Penny
(1941-08-06)August 6, 1941
Died March 16, 2003(2003-03-16) (aged 61)
Occupation Writer and academic
Citizenship  United States
Genre African American Drama
Spouse Timau Betty Penny
Children Johnny Penny, Robert Lee Penny Jr., and Kadumu Penny
Relatives Roy Lee Penny Sr., Jefferson Davis Penny Jr., Ann Penny, and Betty Jean Penny

Robert Lee "Rob" Penny (August 6, 1941 – March 16, 2003) was an African-American playwright, poet, social activist, and professor. Penny wrote more than 30 plays and 300 poems.

Early life[edit]

Penny was born in Opelika, Alabama, on August 6, 1941. He moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania's Hill District as a toddler, where he was raised. A 1957 graduate of Central Catholic High School (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), Penny had childhood aspirations of joining the priesthood.

Academic life[edit]

Penny was in the first cohort of Black Studies faculty hired in 1968 by Co-directors of the University of Pittsburgh's new Black Studies Program, Jack L. Daniel, Ph.D. and Curtiss E. Porter. Porter and Daniel sought to develop a faculty representative of both academia and community. Porter, in particular, himself a creative, drew on Penny's established reputation as a "straight ahead" poet, fusing the incantations of Bebop jazz and street lyricism into hard hitting graphic, terse poetics that spoke to street life. Emanating from Pittsburgh's fabled Hill District creative arts core, he was a lead voice of The Centre Ave Poets Writer's Workshop, which included others such as Charlie Williams, Nick Flournoy and August Wilson, who would achieve later fame as America's premier African American playwright. Many considered Penny to be Wilson's mentor in those early days. Penny's hire, along with other non-traditionalists academics, such as the choreographer Bob Johnson were part of the push to infuse the Black Studies curriculum with a wholistic Black Aesthetic to correspond to an advanced exploration of Black academics that Porter, in particular, thought should comprise Black Studies. After Penny began teaching at the University of Pittsburgh , he was promoted to associate professor in 1971 under the leadership of Porter. His tenure established a foothold for the increased production of his art. Penny, moved on to serve as chair of its Africana Studies Department from 1978 to 1984 after Porter's resignation from the Chairmanship. Penny was also a founding member of the Africana Studies Department.

"In terms of his professionalism, he was as close as someone can get to being an unrecognized genius. He appeared to be a simple man, but was actually quite complex," Daniel said. "As a person, with his theatrical influence, he was genuinely in touch with the human side of all of us. He was thought-provoking, forever challenging, dedicated, sincere and warm, with a kind of stick-to-itiveness -- someone who always kept his eye on the prize."

Dennis Brutus described his former colleague "as a person who inspired his students. He was always encouraging and helpful. As a poet myself, I can say he also was a fine poet, in the black poetic tradition, who inspired others to write, especially through the Kuntu Writers Workshop. And he was a man who was an inspiration to young people in terms of his activism and community activities."

Theatrical contributions[edit]

In 1968, he and his friend August Wilson, a fellow Pittsburgh poet and playwright, were approached by members of Pitt's Black Action Society (BAS), Curtiss E. Porter, Anthony"Tony" Fountain,E. Philip McKain, who had recently obtained funding, to establish the Black Horizons Theater, which staged performances until the mid-1970s. Dr. Vernell A. Lillie founded the Kuntu Repertory Theatre in 1975 as a way of showcasing Penny's plays. Penny was the playwright-in-residence for the Kuntu Repertory Theatre. Today, the theatre continues to hold performances of Rob’s plays.

In 1976, he and Wilson co-founded the Kuntu Writers Workshop, which Penny coordinated until his death on March 16, 2003.[1]

The Pittsburgh City Council honored Penny by presenting the Penny family with a key to the City of Pittsburgh for his commitment to social activism, dedication to encouraging youth, and contributions to the greater Hill District community. July 29, 2008, is officially the city of Pittsburgh's Rob Penny Day.

The 62-year-old poet, playwright, teacher and activist died of a heart attack at his Hill District home on March 16, 2003.

Playwright credits[edit]

Rob Penny's plays have been nationally produced in such theatres as the aforementioned Kuntu Repertory Theatre, Chicago's ETA / Creative Arts Foundation, Inc. New York's New Federal Theatre founded by Dr. Woodie King, Jr. as well as Brooklyn, New York's celebrated Billie Holiday Theatre, the 2000 world premiere of Nefertari Rising was also directed by Woodie King, Jr.[2]

Selected plays[edit]

  • Among the Best: The Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays
  • Bad News
  • Blue Yonder
  • Boppin' With The Ancestors
  • Clean Drums
  • Coon Can
  • Dance of the Blues Dead
  • Deeds of Blackness
  • Depths of Her Star, The
  • Diane's Heart Dries Out Still More
  • Good Black Don't Crack
  • Good Quick Feel-and Then We Build upon a Plan, A
  • Killin’ and Chillin’
  • Life Rise
  • Little Willie Armstrong Jones
  • Nefertari Rising
  • Night of the Hawk
  • Reflections: Rob Penny’s Forum in Flight
  • Republic of New Africa, The
  • Slow Lives On A Humdrum
  • Sugar and Thomas
  • Sun Rising on the Hill District
  • Take on a Life
  • Trip, A
  • Uhh Survival Energy
  • Up to Life
  • Way, The
  • Who Loves the Dancer


  1. ^ Dyer, Ervin (March 18, 2003). "Obituary: Robert Lee 'Rob' Penny / Founder of Kuntu Repertory; poet, teacher and activist". Post-Gazette. Pittsburgh. Retrieved October 2, 2005. 
  2. ^ "World Premiere continues Silver Season for Kuntu Repertory Theatre", News Services, University of Pittsburgh, February 22, 2000.
  • Conner, Lynne (2007). Pittsburgh in Stages: Two Hundred Years of Theater. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. ISBN 0-8229-4330-1. 

External links[edit]