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St Paul's celebrated Penumbra Theatre raises unprecedented $560K at 40th anniversary gala

Director Marion McClinton embraces Contanza Romero-Wilson. Photo by Caroline Yang.

Penumbra Theatre, one of the nation’s most venerated African-American companies and one whose most famous member is Pulitzer Prize winning playwright August Wilson, raised more than half-a-million dollars at its 40th anniversary Saturday — a day that St Paul mayor Chris Coleman declared Penumbra Theatre Day.

The unprecedented fundraising haul of $560,000, which represents about a quarter of the theater’s $2 million annual budget, is a resounding statement of support for the company as it enters a new era. Visionary founder Lou Bellamy, who was feted at the event, stepped down at the top of the year to make way for the solo leadership of Sarah Bellamy, his daughter who grew up in the theater.

The younger Bellamy, who is respected across the country for her intellect, passion and moral compass, is building on the company's foundations to expand its scope and reach.

“I have every confidence that under our new artistic director’s leadership the company will continue to create art that honors the past, addresses the present, looks to the future,” said Lou Bellamy.

Saturday’s confab, hosted by charismatic company members T. Mychael Rambo and James T. Alfred, was held at the studios of TPT public television. The festivities included music by a Sanford Moore-led band fronted by such singers as Greta Oglesby, Dennis Spears, Thomasina Petrus and Alexis Sims, star of the musical “Girl Shakes Loose,” which had its successful premiere this spring at Penumbra.

There were also surprising auction items on offer, including a birding trip with Sarah Bellamy to Hawk Ridge Observatory in Duluth. That she’s an enthusiastic naturalist should not be much of a surprise. When he is not directing shows or hitting the links, Lou Bellamy is an avid outdoorsman who hunts and fishes.

The gala celebrated original company members such as Austene VanLester Purry, Faye Price, James Craven, Regina Marie Williams, Terry Bellamy, Tonia Jackson, Abdul Salaam El Razzac, H. Adam Harris, Kevin West, James Austin Williams and Marion McClinton, the playwright, actor and director.

McClinton, who shepherded Wilson’s later works to Broadway, was presented with the inaugural August Wilson Visionary Award by Wilson's widow, the award-winning designer and producer Constanza Romero-Wilson. She flew into town to present the award, a cut-out wooden sculpture of Wilson's likeness designed by visual artist and longtime company member Seitu Jones.

In his acceptance speech, McClinton noted that with “Jitney” playing on Broadway this season, all ten plays in Wilson’s decade-by-decade chronicle of African-American life in 20th-century America have now made it to the Great White Way.

Singing actor Spears also won the inaugural Lou Bellamy Award for Artistic Excellence. Moved to stuttering, he recalled walking into Penumbra to audition as a green, but eager performer.

The gala was attended by around 200 leaders across many fields. Those from the corporate world included Target’s Laysha Ward, 3M’s Kim Price as well as two executives from Ecolab  — CEO Doug Baker and COO Tom Handley.

Attendees also came from the philanthropic world, including McKnight Foundation president Kate Wolford; Sharon DeMark of the St Paul Foundation; and Eric Jolly of Minnesota Philanthropy Partners.

There were also prominent longtime Penumbra supporters such as Josie Johnson, Shirley Pearl and Reatha Clark-King as well as board members Phyllis Rawls Goff, Stew Widdess and former managing director Chris Widdess. Board chair Jeff Saunders spoke with passion.

A visibly moved Sarah Bellamy took the stage to thank those who have supported the theater through its struggles and triumphs in the past and urged continued support as she plants new seeds for the theater's next chapter.

"I can’t yet see exactly what will bloom, but I know that I am planting on sacred ground," Bellamy said.

A trip to Hades with Minnesota artist Samantha Russell

Photograph of Samatha Russell's "Lethe" (2017) by the author 

MFA exhibitions are generally a cluster@$*#. Graduates race to finish their thesis, showcasing what it is they’ve done over the past two years – because yes, they’ve been working hard, not hardly working! --  all the while keeping in mind where they are going next. I like going to MFA exhibitions, not only for the rawness of the work I usually see, but to keep an eye out for who’s up-and-coming.

I almost fell onto sculptor Samantha Russell’s piece “Lethe” (2017) in part because there it was, emerging out of the tiled floor. It is a pieced-together, displaced female body made out of unfired clay. Positioned as if it were jutting out of the floor, or perhaps floating in the river, “Lethe” also references one of the five rivers of Hades, the river of forgetfulness. At once this could be a scene from “Twin Peaks” but it’s also reminiscent of the mass graves of immigrants that were uncovered in 2015 in Texas just miles inland from the U.S.-Mexico border. It also nods to the normalization of both violence against women. 

Curious to learn more about Lethe’s work, I reached out to her about doing a studio visit in which we drink sparkling water and discuss her art. Being fabulous and worldly, turns out she was in Italy. So we emailed instead, while I drank sparkling water from my desk in the Twin Cities. I imagine she sipped wine in Italy, because when in Rome . . .

John Everett Millais' "Ophelia" (1851-2). Image via Wikimedia.

ALICIA ELER: Tell me about this piece! It’s great. I know you’re referencing one of the five rivers of Hades, and I was also thinking of Sir John Everett Millais' painting “Ophelia” (1851-2) . . . but I was also thinking of political overtones, specifically the bodies of immigrants that were found in unmarked graves at the U.S.- Texas border in 2015. What was going through your head as you made this piece?

SAMANTHA RUSSELL: I was thinking about loss of all kinds, but “Lethe” is specifically referencing personal loss. We lose people not only to death but to distance and time as well. After two deaths in the family within a very short time, I was thinking about a lot of people that were still alive but I had still lost. The idea of immigration has been in my mind, and how could it not right now, however those losses have manifested themselves into another project that I will be starting soon. 

AE: I notice that you are working mostly with clay – is it unfired? What drew you to that material?

SR: For this sculpture the clay is unfired. I wanted to use the fragility of unfired clay so that the works would break and wear away. The portion of the work outside wore away because it was left unprotected and the portion in the gallery was ultimately destroyed and gallery visitors neglected to see the work and stepped on the bodies. The literal destruction through human carelessness was something the unfired clay echoed well for the metaphorical ideas I was speaking to. 

Close-up of "Lethe." Image courtesy of the artist.

AE: Naturally, the body factors often into your work – but it seems to be mostly the body in fragments and parts, never the whole “unified” body. Talk about the nature of fragmentation and your interest in presenting it in this physical form.

SR: Figurative sculpture has always fascinated me with its recognizability as human, even in the abstract. When we see figurative works, as makers and viewers we place ourselves into the position of the sculpture and, in return, I feel, are better able to empathize with the concepts. I use fragmentation to insure identity for a more universal identification but to also draw specific attention. Specific body parts and gesture convey specific ideas and moods and I like to use those gestures alone to find specificity in sharing my concepts. 

AE: Do you have any shows coming up? Or, are you basking in that #postMFAlife right now and not doing anything at all?

SR: I currently have a sculpture in a show, 8-Bit, hosted by Whitdel Arts, housed in Hatch Arts in Detroit. I am also creating and curating works for an exhibition next spring at Inver Hills Community College in Minnesota. 

AE: Who are some of the artists that influence your work? Are you inspired by Kiki Smith at all?

SR: Kiki Smith is definitely influential as well as Ai Weiwei, Rodin, Michelangelo, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Martha Rosler, Lauren Kulman, Yoan Capote, Cristina Cordova, and so many more. 

"Grasping" (2016). Image via

AE: What are you up to in Italy? Vacation or residency?

SR: Italy is a bit of a vacation before I begin a fellowship with Kunstverein Würzburg for 8 weeks this summer. 

AE: What would you like viewers to take away from viewing “Lethe”?

SR: Mindfulness and remembering, not only of those we have lost for good but those relationships we can still mend with a little effort and attention. 

Visit Samantha Russell's website for more info about the artist:

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