Want to see a world-class play and then get acupuncture or a massage at the same place? That may soon be possible, thanks to a new vision to transform St. Paul’s famed Penumbra Theatre Company.
After 44 years as a nationally recognized font of Black theatrical genius, Penumbra is getting a new name and a broader mission. The house that Lou Bellamy, August Wilson and others built is becoming the Penumbra Center for Racial Healing, the theater announced.
The center still will produce plays, but performing arts is becoming just one of three areas of focus. The others are racial equity and wellness.
“I see this as a real stepping out of a lot of clandestine work that we’ve been doing at Penumbra for many years,” said artistic director Sarah Bellamy, who in 2017 took over solo leadership of the company her father founded. “We’ve been trying to figure out how to take care of, and resource, our people for generations. The resiliency strategies that we’ve developed and passed down can be shared and resourced better. Penumbra is an organic evolution of what came out of the settlement house movement, and this is the organic evolution of Penumbra.”
One of just three professional Black theaters in the nation, Penumbra has staged more than 200 plays since it was founded in 1976, including world premieres such as Ifa Bayeza’s “Benevolence” and Wilson’s “Jitney.” The roster of celebrated artists whose work has been seen at the theater includes playwright Dominique Morisseau, writer-actors Roger Guenveur Smith (“Malcolm X,” “Do the Right Thing”) and James T. Alfred (“Empire”) and designer Seitu Jones, the McKnight Foundation’s 2017 distinguished artist.
Penumbra had an annual budget of $2.3 million before the pandemic shutdown. Its last produced play, Claudia Rankine’s “The White Card,” sold out its run and was extended.
Theater will still be a centerpiece of Penumbra, but it will be presented in a festival as part of a cohesive approach toward something larger offering wholeness and healing, Bellamy said.
“You need the creative inspiration — the offering, opening and invitation that the arts give you,” she said. “Then when you’re cracked open and you’re raw, you need to take advantage of that opening with gentle nurture and learning. For me, it’s the practice of racial healing that’s being embodied by the new organization through these different rivers of arts, racial equity and wellness coming together.”
Bellamy said that the change is being driven by both a sense of expanding the mission to meet the needs of today and an expansion of the business model. Theater-making in America is challenging, risky work that, in the best of times, often does not pay for itself. But Penumbra has found success not just onstage but with its educational and other programs, including its teen-focused summer leadership institute.
Bellamy said the new model is an extrapolation of that summer program. The vision now includes year-round work in racial equity and wellness, possibly including expansion into new space for things such as meditation, yoga, massage and other ways to “take away the toxins that accumulate in our bodies because of the racial stratification and ghosts in our society.”
The news was welcomed by leaders and artists.
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said that “as an institution that has been serving our community for more than four decades, the Penumbra Center for Racial Healing will be a beacon for all of us as we move through these uncertain times toward a brighter future for our children and grandchildren.”
And T. Mychael Rambo, a frequent actor on Penumbra’s stage, said that in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Penumbra helped him feel “purpose-filled and useful and validated.”
The rebranding can’t help but feel like a sting for some in the old guard, said actor James Craven, who helped build the company.
“If she’s [Bellamy] going to combine what she does with what we did, then I’m OK with that,” he said. “Basically, I don’t want the theater giving up the legacy that we built.”
Bellamy understands his concerns.
“This is something that anticipates abundance and possibility — you’re going to get that legacy plus more,” she said. “Imagine if a young August Wilson came to a Black organization that not only had the funding to support and develop his writing, but could give him coaching, offer a bookstore with this incredible wealth of letters, or have acupuncture or, in a thousand ways, get to dream bigger.”