Given how much is at stake, the youthful new leaders of Penumbra Theatre and Mu Performing Arts have slid into their jobs with seeming ease and a surprising lack of drama.
Sarah Bellamy, 35, is taking over from her father, Lou Bellamy, at Penumbra Theatre, the nation’s largest and most-esteemed African-American company and one that teetered near financial collapse just two years ago.
Randy Reyes, 41, has been in charge at Mu since last fall, when he took over from founder and longtime leader Rick Shiomi.
“We’re watching what happens as the baton is passed, not only because it’s a critical moment when you move from founder-led organizations,” said Angelique Williams-Power, senior program officer for culture at the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation. “We’ve lost a lot of organizations in such transitions.”
Bellamy and Reyes, both charismatic and outspoken, represent more than a generational shift or an administrative shuffle. They are charting new courses in ways that audiences are certain to notice.
Penumbra’s recently announced 2014-15 season, themed “womansong,” features work by an unprecedented number of female directors and playwrights, including Lynn Nottage and Dominique Morisseau, at the St. Paul playhouse best known as the artistic home of Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson.
Reyes announced a season that does not hew to the folk plays that were a Mu staple early on. Instead, the lineup includes two new plays plus reinterpretations of classics from the American and Asian-American canon.
Bellamy and Reyes also are being watched as examples of leaders of a new generation, Williams-Power said.
“These new visionaries are taking the helm at a time when the model for leadership of an arts organization needs to be reinvented,” she said. “There’s a hope, nationally, that they will create a new paradigm for that at a time when people experience theater, music and museums in a different way, in this early part of the 21st century.”
Even as they sing from the same page, the two leaders come from vastly different backgrounds. Minneapolis-born Bellamy essentially grew up at Penumbra, with the actors, playwrights and other professionals as aunts and uncles. She studied postcolonial theory at Sarah Lawrence College in New York and earned her master’s degree in humanities from the University of Chicago.
Reyes, who is Filipino-American, grew up in Los Angeles in an extended family before going off to the University of Utah and to Juilliard. The two were in close contact last fall when activists mobilized against the touring production of “Miss Saigon” at St. Paul’s Ordway Center, citing its stereotypical portrayals of Asians. Reyes, who’s best known as an actor, was outspoken during that episode.
“I’m learning that I’m now the face of an organization, and I can’t just speak my mind as freely as I did before,” he said. “It’s surprising, and something that I’m growing into, being responsible for a company.”
The pair have been meeting regularly about other shared issues — so much so, in fact, that they recently launched a coalition of minority theaters. That alliance, which includes New Native Theatre, Teatro del Pueblo and Pangea World Theater, hopes to change artistic and funding dynamics in a community that in recent years has seen controversy erupt over play selection and casting of such shows as “Miss Saigon,” “Disney’s Aladdin Jr.” and “The Scottsboro Boys.”
“We’re not just about responding to stereotypes onstage at the major institutions in town,” said Reyes. “It’s about the capacity we have as artists with deep knowledge of our communities.”
Bellamy added, “And we’ll do intercultural collaborations that serve broader communities of color, and work to educate funders and the public about the work we’re doing.”
Reyes and Bellamy lead theaters whose small budgets belie their big impacts.
Penumbra has 12 employees and a $1.2 million budget, making it the nation’s largest African-American company. It was founded by artistic director Lou Bellamy in 1976 and has been a hotbed of theatrical creativity ever since, even as it has weathered fiscal troubles.
Sarah Bellamy, who grew up in the theater and has acted onstage in Wilson’s plays, seeks to expand Penumbra’s focus beyond its main stage productions. The company is seeking more ways to engage social-justice causes and also is expanding its educational program.
Already, Penumbra’s Summer Institute, a leadership training program run by Bellamy, has gotten national attention. The New York-based Surdna Foundation recently granted the institute $300,000.
“What Sarah brings is the intellectual, philosophical framework to do the work,” Lou Bellamy said. “I’m a practitioner, and someone who taught at the U, but she has the real training to go toe-to-toe with the intellectuals.”
Mu, which has six employees and a $600,000 annual budget, produces work at various stages around town. It has little interest in having its own stand-alone space at the moment.
Reyes is drawing admirers, not least of all from his predecessor, Rick Shiomi.
“Randy’s very outspoken, but we agree 100 percent on the issues,” Shiomi said. “When I started Mu, I was very cautious, because I was building an organization. Mu’s established now. Randy went through the application process, interviews with the board, everything. I had little to do with it. But I’m thrilled for the new directions, and for the fact that he speaks his mind.”
That new direction at Mu is reflected beyond the announced season. Reyes also has formalized and expanded a training institute for actors and for taiko drumming at Mu.
“When I was at school in Utah and at Juilliard, I was a minority,” he said. “I learned some wonderful things at those places, but I want to create a space, an environment, where we train artists without the pressures of being a model minority, where we can experiment and fail and not be expected to be perfect little Asians.”