The torch is being passed at the nation's largest African-American theater company.

Sarah Bellamy, a 35-year-old playwright, director and educator who also is daughter of founder Lou Bellamy, has been promoted to co-artistic director of Penumbra Theatre, the St. Paul-based company announced at an emotion-tinged gathering Monday.

The younger Bellamy, who had been associate artistic director, will serve alongside her father, who turns 70 in March, for three years before becoming sole leader of Penumbra.

Her ascension will make her one of the country's youngest, most high-profile female theater leaders.

"In terms of scope, Penumbra is the most important African-American theater in the world," said Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and a consultant to Penumbra. "Funders value stability and continuity, and Sarah is the perfect choice. This move ensures the future of this very important institution."

"I am thrilled for Penumbra and for her," said Lou Bellamy, an Obie Award winner who founded the theater in 1976 at a similar age as his daughter is today. "She grew up in this theater and has a deep understanding of the cultural import of our work. I'm a practitioner, but Sarah has the intellectual and theoretical rigor that makes a father … proud."

A number of Twin Cities area theaters, including Mixed Blood, Illusion and the Jungle, are still run by their founders. Penumbra is one of the first to navigate the transition to the next leader.

Sarah Bellamy, who grew up in Orono, earned a graduate degree from the University of Chicago. A dynamic speaker, she is known for her concentration on using art for social change. She has headed Penumbra's Summer Institute, a highly regarded leadership training program for teens.

She also has been at the forefront of Penumbra's efforts to deepen its community engagement. And she serves as a visiting professor at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.

On Monday, she said she will build on her father's legacy.

"Some younger leaders feel they need to raze the field and burn down the buildings in order to erect something new," she said. "My job is to honor the great work that's been done at Penumbra for 40 years and to find more ways to use art for social change. If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

On the upswing

A year and a half ago Penumbra was, in fact, broke. The company canceled the remainder of its season, pared its budget and slashed its staff because of fiscal challenges. It held a public appeal that netted $359,000 — $19,000 more than its goal — and was able to catch up on its bills.

Penumbra has 11 full-time employees and a $2.2 million budget — figures that are expected to grow over the next three years. "We expect to hire four to six full-time employees," said Chris Widdess, managing director.

On Monday, Penumbra announced that it has raised $1.5 million in multiyear pledges that will help with its transition. Funders were enthusiastic.

"Penumbra is a treasure that we must take care of," said Laysha Ward, president of community relations at Target.

Bellamy, whose appointment was endorsed unanimously by Penumbra's board, has acted and written plays but is not well-known as a director. She may stage shows later.

"In the first three years, I want to make sure that we successfully navigate the transition," she said. "We're bringing in directors and playwrights and a lot of new talent — the new Lou Bellamys and August Wilsons."

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390