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How this Black theater group is using art as a tool to 'awaken' people


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: In the months since the police killing of George Floyd, cultural institutions nationwide have grappled with their identities and missions.

But for one theater just miles from the site of Floyd's murder, that reexamination began long before May of 2020.

Jeffrey Brown has this story, part of our ongoing arts and culture coverage, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: At the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota, Langston Hughes' "Black Nativity" has become a holiday season staple, performed here nearly every year for decades.

It was the opening show of the 45th season at Penumbra, one of the nation's largest and most renowned Black theater companies.

Lou Bellamy, Founder, Penumbra Theatre: I wanted to provide a space where we could still plumb the human condition, but do it through the African American experience.

Jeffrey Brown: Director Lou Bellamy founded Penumbra in 1976. He's since handed the reins to his daughter Sarah.

Early on, he says, there were few opportunities for African Americans on stage.

You weren't seeing enough opportunities both for actors and directors and writers, but you also weren't seeing the stories.

Lou Bellamy: That's the most important thing, the stories. These are not characters that are distant from us. They are our parents. They are our cousins. We're a professional theater inside of a community.

Jeffrey Brown: Over the past 45 years, Penumbra has cemented its reputation, annually putting on well over 100 performances, discussions, film screenings and other events for more than 25,000 people.

Lou Bellamy: We're responsible to these people. I live next door to them.

When I do something on stage, they will tell me about it when I'm shopping or getting on the bus or whatever it might be. There's an interaction that we intend to happen. The theater becomes a tool that you can use to awaken people.

Jeffrey Brown: But there have been challenges, including retaining top talent.

Lou Bellamy: When we developed these actors and they people began to see these stories being told, we became almost a farm team for the larger theaters in town.

My challenge was then to raise the amount of support and the salaries and so forth for these actors, so they wouldn't have to subsidize our art. You know, you don't want to ask another actor to take less to be Black.

Jeffrey Brown: Still, Penumbra has helped launch the careers of numerous Black actors and playwrights, and had a renowned, long-running relationship with the late Pulitzer Prize and Tony winner August Wilson.

Talvin Wilks, now a successful playwright and director nationally, still works with Penumbra, giving it and other Black theaters all credit.

We met him last fall at the University of Minnesota, where he teaches.

Talvin Wilks, Playwright: These institutions were my hope. They were my reach. They were, oh, yes, if I get to Penumbra, right, if I get to The Black Rep in St. Louis, if I get to Freedom, then that's a career.

When you're an undergraduate, you're led to believe that the world is full of opportunity for you once. You make a very quick discovery that no, no, no, no, all places are not available to you. But these places are. That's why they're there.

Sarah Bellamy, Artistic Director, Penumbra Theatre: Black theater built a world for Black folks where we could see ourselves lovingly, critically represented, and those worlds made it more and more possible for us to dream things that were yet to come.

Jeffrey Brown: Sarah Bellamy took over as Penumbra's artistic director in 2017. Growing up, she appeared in plays and held nearly every job at the theater. She studied her father's leadership and creative style closely.

Sarah Bellamy: As I came into the artistic directorship, I think one of the first things I learned is, oh, this isn't just about picking great plays, and I have to be an advocate, an activist. I have to try to change the field.

Jeffrey Brown: That part of the job took on new meaning in may of 2020, after the police murder of George Floyd in neighboring Minneapolis and the uprising that followed.

At the time, Bellamy was already years into planning a transformation for the theater to become the Penumbra Center for Racial Healing, a place that combines the arts with programs to promote equity and wellness.

Sarah Bellamy: We were in the process of doing an artist institute focused on racial healing. The artists, there was no plan, but they knew what to do. The trumpeter made music. The dancers started moving in their apartments.

I mean, it was -- I'm getting chills talking about it. It was so powerful. It was a container to hold our grief, our rage, our deep frustration and fatigue of so many generations of this state-sanctioned violence, and it broke open.

Jeffrey Brown: The theater officially announced its change in the summer of 2020.

The center will still include a full season of plays, but also activities like yoga and meditation. And there will be a boost to the kinds of equity training that Penumbra has been putting on for companies, organizations and schools for well over a decade, like these monologues performed by Penumbra actors.

Mikell Sapp, Actor: My dark skin, my voice, my style all makes me vulnerable. Because you're afraid? Can you just stop being afraid?

Jeffrey Brown: In the meantime, Penumbra is getting national attention and support, including a $5 million dollar gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.

Sarah Bellamy: We have enough support now to actually realize, I think, the full imagination of what the artists always wanted. This is not so very different from the founding of this space in general. We just are going at it a little differently.

But I think art has to meet the moment, and this theater must meet its community. And our community is in great need.

Jeffrey Brown: The 45th season at the Penumbra Theatre runs through June.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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