A GREAT DEAL of prominent glad-handing recently went down at the Guthrie Theater as artistic director Joe Dowling announced--along with his organization's new season--its May collaboration with Penumbra Theatre Company on August Wilson's Fences. In the process, handwriting which has developed largely unnoticed materialized on the wall in stark black and white.
To finance the gala Guthrie production of Fences (originally scheduled at Penumbra), the Penumbra production of Cheryl L. West's Jar The Floor is postponed to the 1997-98 season. When A Raisin In The Sun closes March 9th, theater will cease to exist at Penumbra until the fall. What's happening here is that the Penumbra is rapidly moving away from its home ground, and one day may very well be gone.
Founder/artistic director Lou Bellamy is not selling out, nor is Dowling committing some dastardly deed of appropriation. The problem is that black people simply refuse to spend money to see shows at Penumbra. Ever self-congratulatory, indignantly woofing to whites about the importance of "our cultural resources," the Twin Cities black community, in reality, fails to support theater in its own backyard, and is tossing that cultural resource up for grabs. They can blame no one but themselves should the day come that the only place to see black plays in the Twin Cities is at the resource-shy Pillsbury House or at white-run theaters.
The rationalization that there are not enough black patrons in Minneapolis and St. Paul to support black theater does not hold water. Just over a year ago, when a company all but completely comprised of Penumbra actors did Big White Fog at the Guthrie, black faces truly turned out in force. Night after night of the run, black crowds converged, posturing and preening in the lobby with their chests swelled, eager to see and be seen strutting about the great white premises before ceremoniously taking their seats.
Why are these patrons' wallets habitually closed to Penumbra productions, where prices are generally much lower than the Guthrie's? Where are the fashionably culture-conscious when Penumbra needs them in its lobby? Why, unless black theater comes in gilded trappings with a seal of white approval, does the primarily intended audience leave it for someone else to go see? I offer that it's because far too many blacks enthusiastically endorse a legacy of self-loathing which dictates that anything we can do, white folks will do better.
Fences at the Guthrie couldn't happen, one must acknowledge, without the blessing of Penumbra company member and author August Wilson. More's the travesty. Do you think Wilson would have let his play move one inch from Penumbra's stage if hordes watering at the mouth to see it at the Guthrie could be counted on to attend it at Penumbra? Especially with the uproar he's raised about the dire need to have black-produced theater available to black people? (See Henry Louis Gates' piece on Wilson in the February 3 issue of The New Yorker for more on this.) Had the thought crossed Wilson's mind, imagining the ensuing protest would've blocked that thought out. There will, of course, be no outcry from the community, from the Urban League, from the NAACP or anybody else--unless it's for front-row Guthrie seats.
That 1996 marked Penumbra's 20th anniversary season puts the situation perfectly in perspective. Bellamy established PTC two decades ago as a venue where black Americans could see the black experience told within our cultural context, in our community. It was started so that we wouldn't have to depend on white theaters to acknowledge us by doing the occasional black play. All these years later, the season ostensibly celebrating Penumbra's significance has been ignominiously dismantled. One play has been struck. Another is relocated. Money is tight, and the predominantly white Penumbra audience can't keep the doors open by themselves. The anniversary schedule belongs where this institution began, not chopped up and jerry-rigged, part to be seen some other day, part to be staged about as far from the black community as one can get.
Penumbra, a nationally renowned theater, stands on shaky ground, and if things don't change, Bellamy and associates will quite probably move, setting up shop where they can count on customers to faithfully come. If Fences proves profitable, as did Big White Fog, why shouldn't Dowling parcel out production space on a regular basis? Why shouldn't Penumbra cut their losses and take him up on it? All God's chillun gotta eat.
Penumbra has not yet given up on black people, but remains committed to giving Twin Cities soul folk the message: theater can survive and, by rights, should prevail beyond the province of Caucasians. If they continue stubbornly refusing to hear, the voice can't help but fall silent. And there blacks will be, a day late and a dollar short, whining and crying.
Or maybe not. Maybe they won't even notice their loss, because they're too busy breaking their necks to enjoy the white world's gain.