Three of Minnesota’s esteemed theater practitioners will all be getting honorary doctorates this spring.
Penumbra Theatre founder Lou Bellamy (right, photo by Ann Marsden) will receive an honorary doctorate of divinity on May 18 from United Theological Seminary.
In the same month, Jack Reuler, who founded Mixed Blood Theatre, will receive an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Macalester College, his alma mater, while Tony-nominated director Marion McClinton will be similarly honored by Concordia University.
“One of the things that’s always been an issue [in the academy] is artists having enough respect so they can speak for themselves,” said Bellamy, who founded Penumbra in 1976, the same year that Mixed Blood got its start.
“The scholars used to send the artists out of the room then would begin discussing what they [artists] meant in their work. What this [honorary degree] means is that artists are being given institutional respect for their intellectual accomplishments as well as their craft.”
“I do feel a little like Scarecrow from ‘The Wizard of Oz,’” Reuler said Tuesday. “Now, I’ve got to get up there and recite something.”
Coincidentally, all three honored men were inspired by Ernie Hudson, who was then an athlete and actor at the University of Minnesota. Hudson starred in “The Great White Hope” at Theatre in the Round Players in 1975, a production that proved so popular, the theater wanted to extend the run. Hudson wanted to continue playing the part as well but he sought compensation for his talents. TRP, a community theater that has historically not paid actors, was unwilling to do.
The production enjoyed a commercial run in a transfer to another venue in Minneapolis.
“It was a monumental performance that changed my life,” said McClinton, who spent two years at the U but never finished. “I had intended to go into film but when I saw that, I knew that that was my calling. It opened my eyes about the kind of statements you could make onstage.”
“That episode showed how few opportunities there were for artists of color at that time,” added Reuler.
Reuler, who intended to go become a veterinarian while a student at Macalester, founded Mixed Blood as a summer job after graduation. But he met diverting success with the theater whose mission involves living out some of the principles espoused by Martin Luther King, Jr.
“It’s the summer job that’s lasted 38 years,” he said.
Bellamy also founded Penumbra with similar intent. Now all three men are national figures.
Reuler is a leader in the field who teaches in California and serves on multiple panels. His company regularly premieres new plays and has given work and opportunities to hosts of artists.
The same is true for Bellamy, also a field leader while his theater, the largest African-American company in the nation, is esteemed for its jazz style of directing and the talent it has nurtured. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson was a company member at Penumbra, which is known as the finest interpreter of his work.
McClinton (right, photo by Tom Wallace) was Wilson’s director of choice for 15 years toward the end of the latter's life. McClinton staged “Jitney” in London, where the production won an Olivier Award, the English Tonys, and in New York, where McClinton won an Obie. He also directed Wilson's “King Hedley II” on Broadway, for which he was nominated for a best-director Tony.
“I used to play baseball and softball over at Concordia when I was a kid,” said McClinton. “It’s nice to be honored in your home.”