In early September, Penumbra Theatre announced it was facing its most severe crisis in recent memory. Short on cash, the 36-year-old company canceled its fall season and laid off six of 16 employees. The company, whose annual budget had fallen from $3.2 million to $1.9 million, announced that it needed to raise $340,000 by year's end to make its accounts current and resume the production of shows.

The news of a renowned African-American theater on the ropes was picked up from coast to coast. Since then, patrons and funders have been responding with offers of help. While the theater is not out of the woods yet, it is making steady progress, officials said last week. The St. Paul-based company has raised 70 percent of its goal, or about $238,000, said managing director Chris Widdess.

"We don't know if we're going to make it yet -- we're hopeful -- but things are moving in the right direction," said Widdess. "We feel lucky to live in such a caring community."

Foundations, corporations and civic sources have pitched in to aid a company known for developing fine actors and producing gold-standard versions of August Wilson plays. One such talent was singer/actor Greta Oglesby, who went on to star in "Caroline, or Change" at the Guthrie.

"Penumbra really embraced me when I first got to town in 2001, and it was my very first audition, and cast me in 'A Love Song for Miss Lydia,'" Oglesby said. "Penumbra is so close to my heart. ... Everywhere I go, people are rooting for Penumbra."

Oglesby will be participating in the second of several benefits that artists have put together to raise funds for the theater.

Two of those consecutive Monday night concerts, which start Dec. 3, have already sold out. Those shows were put together and directed by longtime Penumbra company members Austene Van and Dennis Spears. A third show, the holiday two-hander "Hot Chocolate," stars Thomasina Petrus and Julius Collins III.

Soul of the theater

"Our artists are the soul of what we do," said Widdess.

The theater is limited by its 250 seats, which means top earning capacity for the "Home for the Holidays" shows is $37,500. No matter, said theater officials and artists: Every penny counts.

The fundraising concerts boast an honor roll of Twin Cities talent. The first, on Monday, is "Divas of December." An evening of music hosted and curated by actor, singer and director Van, it features performers Jamecia Bennett, Yolande Bruce, Dara Ceasar, Ginger Commodore, Debbie Duncan, Cameron Hughes, Petrus, Jennifer Whitlock, Regina Marie Williams and dancer Alanna Morris.

Spears hosts the Dec. 10 show, "One Holiday Wish," which features the members of Moore by Four -- music director Sanford Moore and singers Yolande Bruce, Ginger Commodore, Connie Evingson and Spears. Oglesby will join them for a fare of holiday classics.

The final benefit, Dec. 17, is "Hot Chocolate," written and directed by Van and featuring music director Moore. The holiday revue, which played at Park Square Theatre last year, centers on a couple dealing with stress at that particular time of year.

Penumbra's cancellation of its fall season disappointed many who have made its "Black Nativity" an annual tradition. The theater responded to requests by offering a scaled-down, oratorio version of its family narrative built around carols and hymns. "Black Nativity: A Soulful Noel" will run for four nights, Dec. 20-23, at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis. It is headlined by Spears, Moore, Latonia Hughes-Kendrick and the Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church Mass Choir. Bellamy is set to do narration.

"Penumbra is like family to me -- that's where I first got my start in the early 1980s," said Spears. "I'm honored to do my part to help take care of family."

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390