Arboreal metaphors abound at St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre — a company that adopted Africa’s durable baobab tree as an emblem — as Sarah Bellamy takes over from her father, company founder Lou Bellamy.
The obvious question for observers of the nation’s most esteemed black theater company: How far will the apple fall from the tree?
More appropriate, to Penumbra officials at least, is this: How many branches will the theater sprout as it tries to expand its community reach?
That is the goal of its just announced 40th anniversary season, the final year of a three-year succession plan in which the Bellamys are serving as co-artistic directors.
“We take seriously our role of doing art for social change, but we’re doing much more than that,” Sarah Bellamy said. She hopes to broaden the theater’s stakeholders, and to build coalitions. “It’s really about providing a deep exploration for our audiences and using our ability to connect the work we’re producing onstage to the issues that really matter now.”
To that end, Penumbra is bringing back its popular Let’s Talk panel discussions, now in their fifth year. Last month the theater drew an overflow crowd to the University of Minnesota for a discussion with Black Panther Party members Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins in connection with season finale “Sunset Baby,” a play about idealistic revolutionaries.
Next season will include panels on “Voting Rights – Then and Now” (Oct. 24); “Celebrating Rondo,” about the neighborhood where the theater grew up (Dec. 12); “Divas,” from Josephine Baker and Lena Horne to Diana Ross and RuPaul (March 13, 2017), and “Sustaining Theaters of Color,” a joint discussion with local troupes Mu Performing Arts, New Native Theatre, Pangea World Theater and Teatro del Pueblo (May 15).
The theater is also adding public performances by youngsters July 30 and Aug. 6 to its highly regarded Summer Institute training program, as well as film screenings and a reading series of classic plays, aimed in part at families.
Sarah Bellamy wants to marry Penumbra’s onstage work more deeply to education and community engagement.
“Ours is a challenging and compassionate space to confront really important issues,” she said. “We’re a tiny but mighty team with an artistic and intellectual brain trust that’s unmatched. The challenge that we face is to grow incrementally, given our size and the financial constraints of the organization. But we’re good stewards of the trust, support and love that this community has placed in us.”
Penumbra has been rebuilding its audience and finances since the fall of 2012, when it postponed shows, laid off six of 16 full-time employees and slashed its $2.7 million budget by $800,000. Today, the company’s budget remains at $1.9 million with 10 full-time staffers. Penumbra is doing more with less, attracting nearly 16,000 patrons to its main stage and ancillary events last year. That’s a 14 percent increase from the previous year.
The company has diversified revenue streams, including workshops and ticket sales. At the same time, it has kept a tight rein on expenses, spokeswoman Amy Thomas said.
A mix of old and new
The 40th anniversary season will be themed “Still We Rise,” a variation on a Maya Angelou poem.
It will be retrospective in part, starting with Lou Bellamy’s revival of August Wilson’s “Jitney,” starring a number of Penumbra heavyweights, including the director’s brother Terry Bellamy (Oct. 13-Nov. 6).
The holiday show “Black Nativity” will return Dec. 1-23, staged by Lou Bellamy with choreography by Uri Sands, music direction by Sanford Moore and performances by the Fellowship Missionary Baptist Choir.
But the season also will be forward-looking, including new, cutting-edge work by celebrated performing artist Daniel Alexander Jones. His solo show “Black Light” will be paired with a one-act by young, Penumbra-nurtured performer BriAnna Daniels as part of the Claude Purdy Festival of experimental works (Feb. 2-12, 2017).
The main-stage season concludes with the premiere of “Girl Shakes Loose,” a coming-of-age musical by the promising creative team of Zakiyyah Alexander and Imani Uzuri. “Girl Shakes Loose” is based on the poetry of Sonia Sanchez and will be directed by Penumbra newcomer May Adrales (April 20-May 14).
The theater’s Reel Talk movie series includes the civil rights documentary “Eyes on the Prize: Bridge to Freedom” (Sept. 19); “Black Is … Black Ain’t,” a 1994 film by Marlon Riggs exploring the diversity within African-American identity (Jan. 16, 2017); “BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez,” a new film about a leader of the 1960s Black Arts Movement (April 3, 2017), and Dee Rees’ drama “Pariah,” about a 17-year-old girl whose journey of sexual discovery frightens her family (May 1).