Shadow and Act

Penumbra Theatre's campaign to build an ambitious new stage has the makings of an epic drama--or a nonprofit tragedy

There is a spot in the men's dressing room backstage at Penumbra Theatre where actors make their mark. Along with a collage of risqué aphorisms, the cinder-block walls are covered with long parallel rows of red and black dashes that stretch around the room above a makeup table. Each mark, explains production coordinator James Craven, represents one standing ovation--"and not where just a few people are up," he adds emphatically, "but a full ovation with everyone on their feet."

After 22 seasons in the Hallie Q. Brown-Martin Luther King Community Center in St. Paul's Selby-Dale neighborhood, Penumbra boasts an informal tally of accolades that fills most of one wall and wraps around to the next. Scanning the chronicle of glories past, Craven picks out a 1998 production of August Wilson's Seven Guitars. "It was so hot for this one," he recalls. "They had the heat on in here and everyone was sweating. We just couldn't keep it cool backstage.

"But we keep going," he continues, motioning at a troublesome patch of ceiling where water dribbles in during inclement weather. "Even if it's raining onstage, we keep going. We want our 40 acres and our mule and we're going to beat the ass off anyone who tries to keep it from us. We're here to stay."

Good Fences make good neighbors: Penumbra's Lou Bellamy, seen here in a Penumbra-Guthrie collaboration, seeks local corporate support.
Good Fences make good neighbors: Penumbra's Lou Bellamy, seen here in a Penumbra-Guthrie collaboration, seeks local corporate support.

Craven's declaration is the party line at Penumbra these days. It is a telling sentiment as well, for while asserting the company's health, it also presupposes that that health is in question. Penumbra may be here to stay, in other words, but there may also be stormy weather ahead for what is among the most important African-American theaters in the nation.

Lou Bellamy, the company's founder and artistic director, works down the hall in an office slightly larger than a broom closet. Like the rest of Penumbra's staff, he has learned to deal with the limitations of the space: aging office equipment, sporadic hot and cold running water, and an auditorium with the sightlines and acoustical properties of a high school assembly hall. Although the company now leases the space from Hallie Q. Brown's administration, the theater and community center have a long and symbiotic relationship. In 1976 the center's director hired Bellamy, who had grown up only a few blocks away, as a cultural arts director.

Bellamy moved from Mixed Blood Theatre, where he had directed that company's inaugural production of Leroi Jones's Dutchman--then, as now, a litmus test for race relations in America. Frustrated with Mixed Blood's budding multicultural program, which he believed sold short the needs of black artists and audiences, Bellamy set out on his own. With $125,000 from an unusual source--the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act--Bellamy hired 20 company members, bought 8 house lights, and opened his 260-seat theater, with the raison d'être of producing plays from and about the African-American experience.

At the beginning Penumbra was indisputably Bellamy's show, as he managed the company's finances as well as its artistic endeavors. Then in 1977 a playwright named August Wilson arrived; suddenly the scrappy upstart had cash, a national reputation, and a Pulitzer Prize winner as an advocate. The dusty warrens at the back of a community center, Bellamy decided, no longer befitted the company's stature. And so he started dreaming.

A decade later, Bellamy and Penumbra are planning an ambitious new home--a sprawling $11 million African-American Performing Arts Center in the Selby-Dale area. It is, for Bellamy, an indication that his theater has finally arrived as a cultural institution. Yet between the dream and reality comes the moment of waking; Penumbra announced last month that a $260,000 operating deficit--a considerable sum given Penumbra's annual $1.7 million budget--would require the abbreviation of the coming season from six plays to four, including only two new plays of the sort that have traditionally made Penumbra's reputation. And while both Bellamy and managing director Jayne Khalifa subsequently painted the move as a disagreeable but fiscally prudent decision, it is also indicative of a larger institutional dilemma: Can Penumbra maintain financial viability while simultaneously embarking upon a major expansion project, and producing challenging work?

Mixed Blood artistic director Jack Reuler sees the chronic cash-flow fluctuations as common among nonprofit arts organizations. At Mixed Blood, he explains, he has used touring and corporate shows to alleviate the pressure caused by low box-office returns. "If it were the first time this happened with Penumbra, I'd be more worried," he says. "They seem to have periods of financial strain followed by periods of success."

And although members of Penumbra's board of directors echo Reuler's assessment that the deficit is a small and not-unexpected hurdle, there are also distant rumblings. James Stronge, a retired vice president at 3M who left the board in January after eight years of service, suggests that the company's position might be more tenuous than anyone is letting on. "Funding can be unreliable," he says. "Maybe a play doesn't go as well as it should. Or there's a problem with the location. It's a so-so neighborhood, so maybe people don't want to go down there because of that. The new facility is very ambitious. I think it's probably possible. But getting there is going to be awfully hard."

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