For a minute at least, Penumbra Theatre artistic director Sarah Bellamy can exhale.
Since its founding in 1976, her celebrated St. Paul company has been at death’s door more often than she likes to count. Fiscal woes have haunted the chronically underfunded theater that gave Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist August Wilson his start.
Yet, at a time when the nation is wracked by a devastating pandemic and protests for racial justice, Penumbra has found itself in an enviable position. It no longer has the usual worries about paying its bills or keeping the lights on.
The Ford Foundation recently named Penumbra one of 20 “cultural treasures” and backed up its declaration with a $2.5 million grant. The Mellon Foundation followed suit with a $750,000 award as part of its $5 million infusion into national Black companies.
“This allows us to dream,” Bellamy said.
In total, Penumbra has received $4 million in multiyear pledges from funders across the nation and region, roughly double its annual budget. And it hopes to keep attracting more money as it grows into its next phase.
“We’re now resourced in a way that we’ve never been, so we’re getting out of grind mode — grinding from year to year,” said Amy Thomas, managing director.
Penumbra plans to add a suite of new wellness and racial equity programs to its offering of poignant plays. Over the next year and a half, the company is gearing up to become a center for racial healing and equity, broadening its mission and remit.
That idea of a holistic institution addressing mind, body and soul is the brainchild of Bellamy, a nationally respected leader who three years ago succeeded Lou Bellamy, her father and the theater’s legendary founder, as sole leader. She has been working on plans for the center for years — plans whose union of art, social justice and healing seem tailor-made for a moment when both the killing of George Floyd and the pandemic have brought deep-seated problems to the fore.
“If Sarah looks clairvoyant, and she’s certainly farsighted, it’s because she’s had her ear to the ground on these issues for a long time,” said director Talvin Wilks, also a professor at the University of Minnesota. “Her vision is about theater deeply wedded to and serving community versus art for its own sake.”
Even in a time of restricted travel because of COVID-19, Bellamy, 42, cuts a charismatic swath across the country as a leader, writer and artist. She hosts events on Zoom, delivers keynote addresses and counsels individuals and organizations, inspiring change.
Those who know and have worked with her praise not just her intellect — the words “brilliant,” “insightful” and “virtuosic” come easily off many a lip when they talk about her — but her manner and style. She communicates in a such a personable way that even jaded people want to listen.
“Sarah has this incredible ability to be in the moment and to hover over it, analyze it and translate it for others all at the same time,” said Angelique Power, president of the Field Foundation in Chicago and a friend for more than a decade. “She’s able to toggle between realms and bring us all with her. Anyone who watches Sarah thinking, talking and presenting feels like they’re having a spiritual experience — like you’re watching someone who’s channeling this electric current in front of you.”
The idea that Penumbra should cater to the total being of its artists and patrons comes not just from canvassing artists and audiences about how the theater should best serve audiences in the 21st century. Bellamy uses her own experience as a biracial child — her mother is Irish-American visual artist Colleen Gavin Bellamy — who struggled to fit into starkly divided milieus.
“I went to a private college prep from [age] 5 to 18, a lifer,” Bellamy said. “At that school, I was one of very few kids of color. My brother and I joked that we thought we were the cutest because we were on the covers of all these brochures. We didn’t know that we were representing the diversity of the school.”
At that school, students like her “learned to be quietly Black,” she said. It was also during this time that she battled an eating disorder.
“That was my cutting myself down to size because I felt I was too big in a world that was scared of that bigness,” Bellamy confided. “I didn’t want to take up space or be loud. Now I say, you know what, ‘Take up space, girl. Take. Up. Space!’ ”
If she felt apologetic about who she was at school, she saw a different way of being at Penumbra, where she would do her homework and interact with top-flight artists such as Claude Purdy, Laurie Carlos, Rebecca Rice and Wilson. Bellamy describes going to the theater after school as a kind of wonderland — “an all-Black place teeming with genius and artistry.”
The pain of navigating those different worlds would be converted later into an asset. It was a training ground for speaking to all types of people.
“I was continuously recalibrating myself, learning how to fit and speak different languages,” said Bellamy, who earned her undergraduate degree at Sarah Lawrence College and did graduate work at both the University of Chicago and the University of Minnesota. “The gift of a lifetime is to be the same person in as many places as possible — that’s been my own healing journey.”
Penumbra as safe space
That’s the kind of nurturing safe space she wants to expand at Penumbra. The company’s plans call for a three-legged stool of programs. While theater remains the anchor, it would be supplemented by a wellness center and equity training. Those plans suggest the company has to grow.
“But not growth for its own sake,” Bellamy said. “It has to be organic and to meet the community’s needs.”
Penumbra has been housed in the Hallie Q. Brown/Martin Luther King Jr. Center in the old Rondo neighborhood since its founding. If it is to add a wellness center, it might have to find another location, although that’s far from the first choice.
“For 44 years, Penumbra has been in the Hallie Q. Brown/Martin Luther King Jr. Center, in that park in the Rondo community — this is part of our origins story,” Bellamy said. “All of us are very cognizant of the fact that so many of the retreat spaces, or spaces where people go for connection to mindfulness or wellness, are usually remote. They’re not accessible by bus or foot. Our center needs to be easily accessible for the community. Our most ardent wish is to stay where we are and develop the space we have.”
Bellamy lives just a few blocks away from the theater with partner Nathan Young and their sons, Maxim, 4, and Julian, 11 months.
What Bellamy is trying at Penumbra is something that raises questions, and eyebrows, even as it holds promises. Phyllis Rawls Goff, a community volunteer who has been a Penumbra champion since the 1980s, said that she initially was skeptical of the idea of adding a healing center.
“When she sounded me out about it, I thought it was something beyond theater and performing arts,” Rawls Goff said. But she grasped the meaning in the immediate aftermath of the killing of Floyd, something she found out about on a Zoom call.
“It was supposed to be a session for artists and arts advocates to talk about the new direction, but once I got on, you could immediately tell that something terrible had happened,” Goff said. “Everyone was emotionally struck. And they changed the agenda of the meeting to allow artists to express their grief. Someone said something that I remember to this day. And that is, ‘I don’t want to be mad at white folks’ violence.’ That’s how you move from art to racial healing — to what social justice is really all about. The lights went on in terms of the work of Penumbra also being a healing place.”
The plans are being welcomed by artists and patrons alike. Dave and Ruth Waterbury have been devoted Penumbra supporters since 1988, when they happened upon the musical “Lost in the Stars.”
“We’re mighty impressed with Sarah,” Dave Waterbury said. “Her communication, her regular writings are effective and she’s addressing serious social issues that we need to be aware of and think hard about.”
Company founder Lou Bellamy said that Penumbra has a leader well suited for the moment.
“Sarah knows that place backward and forward because she started working there as a little girl, doing seating,” he said. “She’s doing exactly what great artists do, which is live inside the community and take all that joy and pain, all the aspirations, and turn that into an artistic response. I’m so freaking proud of her.”
If Sarah Bellamy’s idea succeeds, Penumbra might inspire change in the field. For decades, the dominant way that nonprofit American theaters operated was basically to offer a show to complement dinner. As audiences have sought more, companies have added talkbacks and other engagement activities to the menu.
Penumbra has long anchored its ethos in the writings of W.E.B. DuBois, the great Black thinker who advocated art as part of racial uplift, and Black Arts Movement theorists such as Larry Neal, Hoyt Fuller and Barbara Ann Teer, founder of the National Black Theatre in Harlem.
“In the long run, you need the whole community to respond to and invest in the idea,” Wilks said. “Sarah’s vision is bold in a time when we need bold leadership. Penumbra has been positioned well because of her vision. After all, not everyone is on that list of Ford’s list of national treasures.”