Penumbra Theatre, the nation's largest and most esteemed African-American theater, is suspending its programming and will offer no plays this year.

Citing what it called "an immediate cash-flow challenge," the St. Paul-based company said it has laid off six of its 16 full-time employees, including associate artistic director Dominic Taylor, to help trim $800,000 from its $2.7 million budget.

"All of these decisions are painful," theater founder and artistic director Lou Bellamy said.

The theater said that if it could raise enough money this fall -- $340,000 -- it would produce a musical in March 2013.

Penumbra's overall budget was down from $3.2 million the previous fiscal year, when the company had a $500,000 shortfall and canceled two plays.

"This funding environment is tough, especially when projections don't go according to plan," managing director Chris Widdess said. "But based on the response we're getting to date, we think we can do it."

Founded in 1976, Penumbra has never been adequately capitalized. In recent years, it has trimmed staff here and postponed plays there in order to stay fiscally sound.

The suddenness and severity of this crisis have caused concern in a community that is still dealing with the loss four years ago of Theatre de la Jeune Lune and the 2011 upheaval that forced the Southern Theater to pare back to a skeletal staff under a crushing debt.

"People should understand that this is different from those other two situations," said Kate Barr, executive director of the Minnesota Nonprofit Assistance Fund, which helps arts groups with cash flow. "It depends on who's at the table. Penumbra has a great team and an artistic vision that's worth working for. People have to ask: Is this worth having in the community?"

Penumbra's three-part mission includes mainstage work, new-play development (led by Taylor) and an educational program headed by Sarah Bellamy, daughter of the founder. The education piece remains strong, with committed funding, including for its Summer Institute social-justice training program.

Penumbra's money crisis comes at a time when the theater's artistic output is being seen and celebrated nationally. Last year it produced two sold-out runs of the Nat King Cole-themed musical "I Wish You Love," written by Taylor. The show toured to Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and to the Hartford (Conn.) Stage.

Late last year, a lengthy profile of Lou Bellamy aired on the NBC newsmagazine "Rock Center with Brian Williams." And the company has had success with productions at the Guthrie ("The Amen Corner"), the Arizona Repertory Theatre and elsewhere.

Bellamy, who partnered with the late playwright August Wilson for many stellar productions in St. Paul, just directed Wilson's "Two Trains Running" at the Oregon Shakespeare Company and is about to stage his "Fences" at the Denver Center Theatre.

The theater has also been working with schools to develop an audience for its output.

"The irony, if that's the right word, is that we're growing revenue streams and innovating new models for success," Widdess said. "But this is a difficult economic environment in which to stretch. In the past, theaters, companies, even individuals could turn on a dime. Now, there is less flexibility, less room to maneuver, even though I'm still optimistic."

Penumbra will get to gauge its public support soon. Prominent performers are organizing fundraisers for the theater as it faces challenges that Barr, of the Nonprofit Assistance Fund, likened to "an Olympic diving event with a high-degree of difficulty."

"Maybe they'll get the gold medal," she said. "I'm certainly rooting for them."

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390