Penumbra Theatre is widely seen as the country’s foremost African-American theater company, one that nurtured and inspired playwright August Wilson and a raft of other writers, directors and actors.
Yet this citadel of black art, founded in 1976 by Lou Bellamy, has a history that is more than, well, black-and-white. In its early years, Penumbra was a multi-ethnic company, with administrators and talents of different races.
“It sort of grew into its status as the pre-eminent company dedicated to an African-American repertory,” said theater historian Macelle Mahala. “That’s the most surprising thing that people don’t know about Penumbra.”
Recently published by the University of Minnesota Press, Mahala’s “Penumbra: The Premier Stage of African American Drama” is the first scholarly look at Penumbra, an important if sometimes fiscally shaky institution whose impact and influence belie its small budget.
Mahala connects Penumbra to the settlement-house movements across the country, and to other intellectual and cultural traditions.
The book is based on interviews with actors, directors and playwrights, among others, as well as archives drawn from the Givens Collection at the University of Minnesota.
On Monday, Mahala will launch her book with an event at Penumbra.
“It’s exciting for me, because I had some of my earliest theater experiences on field trips there,” she said, recalling productions of “Fences” and “A Raisin in the Sun.”
After growing up in Bemidji and Brainerd, Mahala attended Perpich Center for Arts Education in Golden Valley. At Macalester College, she double-majored in English and theater.
At Macalester, she was deeply influenced by her professor Beth Cleary, and she pondered becoming a scholar. She knew she wanted a life in the arts, but she didn’t know how.
“One day, I was walking down the hall and I saw a posting for an August Wilson fellowship,” she said. Cleary encouraged her to apply for it.
Mahala won the fellowship, and worked on projects at the theater in 2002, when Penumbra did an all-Wilson season. She went on to earn a doctorate at the University of Minnesota, and is a professor at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif.
That all-Wilson season was seminal, she said.
“I got to meet him, and that was a highlight, plus seeing those plays together,” she said.
The book, which is aimed at a general readership and has muted academic jargon, is a fairly absorbing read. It shows how Penumbra, whose audience and staff are still predominantly white, has become the nexus of important cultural, intellectual and performance movements.
“Penumbra,” with an introduction by Bellamy, looks at Wilson’s relationship with the theater, the cultural touchstone that is “Black Nativity” and “Black Feminist Performance.”
Penumbra has had a reputation as a male-centric place, but that is not accurate, said Mahala, citing performer Rebecca Rice, who was instrumental in its early years; Faye Price, who was in its first production, and director Laurie Carlos.
“A lot of work that was done at Penumbra, particularly in the ’90s, was reflective of women’s experiences and was crafted by women in positions of artistic authority,” she said.
Another question that gets asked of Penumbra is: Why a culturally specific theater?
“The whole controversy that happened this year with the Ordway’s production of ‘Miss Saigon’ just reinforces the fact that it’s vital to have culturally specific theaters that can do cultural work,” she said. “They nurture talent and movements that the larger institutions, for whatever reasons, have not been able to do in the same way.”