From left: Sarah Bellamy, artistic director of Penumbra Theatre, and Randy Reyes, artistic director of Mu Performing Arts. (Brian Peterson/Star Tribune)

Theaters that focus on the works of playwrights and audiences of color will become critically endangered if current funding patterns continue, artistic directors of five Twin Cities companies said this week.

That alarm was raised Monday during a spirited panel discussion at Penumbra Theatre titled "Sustaining Theatres of Color," featuring the leaders of Penumbra and four other important small-to-medium troupes: Mu Performing Arts, New Native Theatre, Teatro del Pueblo and Pangea World Theater.

In a passionate discussion that lasted nearly three hours, they spoke about existential challenges, including difficulties in funding. They also touched on the national push by mainstream companies to diversify their repertoires as America becomes a more diverse nation.

Sarah Bellamy, artistic director of Penumbra, said that companies that are already culturally diverse should also be supported, perhaps even more so. She noted that such companies were left behind in the 1990s, when the Wallace Foundation invested $27 million in 46 mainstream arts organizations across the country to help them diversify their audiences.

Ethnic-specific theaters were not given much support then, Bellamy said, and many went belly up.

"We don't want that to happen again," she said.

Randy Reyes, artistic director of Mu, pointed out that there are inherent structural inequities between the big and smaller companies.

"In 2012, data came out about arts disparities nationally, and just 2 percent of arts organizations drew over 50 percent of all funding," said Reyes. "Those numbers have gotten worse since then. And it's not fair, especially when people say they value our work."

The panelists spoke at a time of great change in the Twin Cities theater ecology. A new cadre of visionary leaders has come aboard at places such as the Guthrie, which is reclaiming its place as one of the nation's leading institutions, and the Jungle Theater, which is now routinely doing diverse work.

Those changes offer both opportunities and peril, panelists intimated. The Guthrie has become more inclusive than it's ever been, with game-changing shows like "The Bluest Eye." That goes into territory once claimed by, say, Penumbra, which still has the deepest expertise in doing African-American fare in the Twin Cities.

Inclusiveness means that actors and artists can make a greater living even as it leaves theaters like Mu feeling that they are becoming "feeder companies" for bigger institutions. It's a complicated issue.

"Right now, the biggest thing for us is sustainability," said Al Justiniano, founder of the 25-year-old Teatro del Pueblo. "The coalition wants to make a difference in the landscape, and we're coming together to get that done."

All five of the theaters are founding members of the Twin Cities Theaters of Color Coalition. Formed three years ago, the coalition has been working behind the scenes on an array of initiatives. Its other leaders are Rhiana Yazzie, founding artistic director of New Native Theatre and Dipankar Mukherjee, founding artistic director of Pangea.