10 things you might not know about Penumbra Theatre

Novik Stubbs, T. Mychael Rambo, and Phillip Bond in the 1988 production of Langston Hughes' 'Black Nativity.'

Novik Stubbs, T. Mychael Rambo, and Phillip Bond in the 1988 production of Langston Hughes' 'Black Nativity.' Image courtesy Penumbra Theatre Company; photo by Connie Jerome

The new Minnesota History Center exhibit "Penumbra at 40" provides an opportunity to look back on four decades of African-American theater and to better understand why the St. Paul company has made such a significant national impact. Gathered from the exhibit and other sources, here are 10 things to know about Penumbra.

Minnesota History Center Library
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The company grew out of the Black Arts Movement. Penumbra's 1976 founding was linked to an outpouring of African American artists' voices, including the creation of black theater groups and other organizations, from the mid-1960s into the 1970s.

Penumbra has always been closely linked to its home, the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center. When the Selby-Dale center, long a hub of the local black community, expanded and built a theater, University of Minnesota grad student Lou Bellamy was recruited to lead what became Penumbra Theatre.

The company actually had to defend its legitimacy as an arts organization. In a retrospective video, Bellamy remembers that in the company's early history, "We weren't able to get State Arts Board funding, because they said we were doing social service — not art."

Penumbra earned critical acclaim from the start. Peter Vaughan, theater critic at the Minneapolis Star, followed the company closely. "If Eden is an indication of things to come," Vaughan wrote about Penumbra's first full-length production, "this newest venture on the Twin Cities theater scene deserves a long existence."

Penumbra did The Odd Couple? Yes — with a twist. In a 1978 production, director Horace Bond cast this comedy chestnut to feature black and white co-stars, raising a host of new questions without changing a word of Neil Simon's script.

August Wilson had pivotal support from Penumbra. The late genius, who would go on to win two Pulitzer Prizes, lived in St. Paul from 1978 to 1990 and worked closely with Penumbra as he wrote some of his greatest plays, including Fences and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.

The art extends to the theater's back wall. Turn around in your Penumbra seat, and you'll see a wall of squares painted by Chad VanKekerix and Carrie Andersen in 2008 as a nod to the African-American tradition of preserving history in quilt form. The squares' contents range from geometric patterns to cultural icons.

No other city has a theater like this. Penumbra is one of only a few African-American theater companies of its era to survive — and it's the largest and most influential. By the company's estimate, it employs more theater artists of color than all other Minnesota theaters combined.

It's a family affair. Lou Bellamy's daughter Sarah has long been involved in the theater, including co-starring with her father in a 1990 production of Fences. In 2014, the theater announced that after a transition period, Sarah Bellamy will succeed her father as Penumbra's artistic director.

Penumbra's helping to preserve black history. The University of Minnesota has partnered with Penumbra to launch an online database called Umbra: a resource dedicated to the preservation and indexing of African-American history.