Ever the charismatic performer, Penumbra Theatre founder Lou Bellamy was jaunty and animated as he toured an exhibit celebrating his company at the Minnesota History Center.
Suddenly he grew quiet. A video screen showed a montage of old performances of the troupe’s holiday show “Black Nativity.”
Bellamy brushed aside a tear.
“A lot of people have poured their hearts and souls into Penumbra,” he said, pointing to several actors who are now dead. “We built a company, a theater that’s like a family. And we all made it happen.”
Public displays of emotion are unusual for the tall former student athlete known for decades as a fighter — for social justice and black cultural excellence. He built the scrappy ensemble founded in 1976 into a nationally revered artistic wellspring whose reputation belies its small budget.
Bellamy, 73, stepped down from his leadership role in January. He took a couple of hours recently to tour the exhibit with his successor — daughter Sarah Bellamy — and reflect on Penumbra’s legacy of nurturing generations of African-American artists, including August Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who got his first production at the modest theater in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood.
The exhibit includes a script of that 1982 play, “Black Bart and the Sacred Hills,” with the playwright’s notations. A musical sendup of Aristophanes’ ancient comedy “Lysistrata” — the one in which women refuse to have sex until their men stop warring — the show had an inauspicious start.
Feminists found it wanting, Bellamy recalled.
“We had the women singing onstage: ‘If you don’t meet with our demands, you’ll feel the pain down in your glands, and then you’ll say, we struck without fair warning.’ With that, women got up and started walking out of the theater. I swore I would never do another August Wilson play again.”
A legacy on display
On display through July 30, “Penumbra Theatre at 40: Art, Race and a Nation on Stage” documents four decades of work through playbills, photographs, the sculptural masks of Seitu Jones and set pieces — including scenery for a memorable production of Wilson’s “Fences” that toured nationally.
The exhibit also outlines the company’s cultural roots. Bellamy pointed proudly to a rare first edition of Phillis Wheatley’s “Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral,” the first book published by an African-American writer. There are texts from intellectual leaders such as early-20th-century activist W.E.B. DuBois and New York playwright Larry Neale, an architect of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s, which sought to use culture as a tool for liberation.
That movement spawned hundreds of theaters, but Penumbra is one of a precious few still standing.
“Very few theaters exist to tell us what was happening during that time, let alone their accomplishments and impact,” said Cecily Marcus, curator of the Givens Collection of African-American literature, which partnered on the exhibit. “Penumbra is fundamentally representative of an era.”
Bellamy paused at an image of 19th-century actor James Hewlett, dressed as Richard III in a 1821 production by the African Grove Theatre, the nation’s first legit black performing arts troupe. Its success drew the ire, and envy, of whites, who called in the police.
Its actors “were arrested and thrown in jail for doing ‘Richard III,’ ” noted Bellamy. “And they were not let out until they promised to never do Shakespeare again.”
Fast-forward a century and a half: A federal grant helped Bellamy found Penumbra. While the theater has had its challenges — including a budget shortfall that caused it to cut staff and suspend some of its programming for the 2012-13 season — it remains a unique flagship of black creativity, even genius.
“Penumbra gets a big standing ovation from me for being a marathon runner that has survived the slings and arrows that have come their way,” said Benny Sato Ambush, a former theater director and now educator at Emerson College in Boston.
“They’ve operated in a not-for-profit environment that’s not always hospitable, and yet they have succeeded in creating great art and in seeding the field with a whole lot of talent. Their impact is not just regional, but national and international.”
At its heart, though, Bellamy saw Penumbra’s mission as doing work by, for and of the community.
From the very beginning, the company made its home in the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center in Rondo, the historically black neighborhood where Bellamy was born in 1944.
In a sense, the exhibit serves as an audit of his own life. There are personal touches throughout, including an address in a photo quilt on a wall — 1119 Sherburne Av., where his grandparents lived.
In the 1940s “blacks didn’t live west of Lexington nor north of University,” Bellamy said, but his grandparents bought a home just a block northwest of that intersection.
“One night a cross was burned on my grandmother’s lawn. I remember my grandmother, who had these big bosoms, kept turning me around as I tried to look at this burning thing in my yard.”
The next generation
Penumbra is the first theater to have an exhibit at the Minnesota History Center.
“The main challenge was to take an artistic medium as dynamic and animated as theater and translate that energy in a gallery,” said senior exhibit developer Kate Roberts, who organized the show. “Things came alive when we put it in a larger cultural narrative and let the voices of company members be heard.”
You can put on headphones and listen to the distinctive roar of the P-51 Mustangs flown by the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, as chronicled in Leslie Lee’s “Black Eagles.” Or touch a button, and hear testimony from Penumbra personalities.
“There were only a few roles [at mainstream theaters] for black people: slave, servant, robber,” says actor/choreographer/director Austene Van in one video. But at Penumbra, “there was a place for me, my voice, my family’s voices and my ancestors’ voices.”
Phyllis Rawls Goff, a former board chair and key supporter of the company for decades, recently toured the exhibit with her 12-year-old granddaughter and a 101-year-old neighbor.
“Penumbra provides a safe environment to be open about issues related to race and social justice,” she said. “That is needed more than ever, given our climate today.”
Images on the museum walls represent the theater’s past — including deceased company members Rebecca Rice and Benny Cannon and director Claude Purdy — and its future: the bright, teenage faces from the theater’s much lauded Summer Institute, which pairs artistic training with a social justice focus.
Sarah Bellamy built that program over the past decade. Now, as she takes over solo leadership of the theater after a three-year co-directorship with her father, she’s looking for someone else to lead the institute.
Pausing with him in front of the “Fences” set, she recalled her own time in a Penumbra production of the play.
“I was in it at 13, peeking over the fence from backstage and seeing these streaks of white in the darkened theater,” she said. “They were tissues. People were crying.”
She hopes people will have a similarly powerful experience with the first show under her solo reign — a work she likens to Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.” The new musical, called “Girl Shakes Loose,” is based on the poetry of Sonia Sanchez and features a team of black female artists, including composer Imani Uzuri, playwright Zakiyyah Alexander and director May Adrales.
Sarah Bellamy said the show, commissioned by Penumbra and running April 18-May 14, carries forward the legacy reflected in the exhibit.
“Even after growing up in this theater, with all these great actors and directors being my aunts and uncles, I still get swept up in the magic,” she said. “And it’s that magic that we have to keep going for the next 40 years.”