Driving Force

Sean Smuda

Lou bellamy is in a bit of trouble. He's hit his tee shot a decent distance but with a distinct slice, and his ball has landed in the rough close to a cluster of trees. Dismounting his golf cart, Penumbra Theatre's artistic director reaches for an iron and peers into the distance at the flag on the green.

"Okay," he says. "Am I going to play this one stupid or smart?"

In this case Bellamy opts for the rash gamble, but hey, it's just an afternoon round with a writer who wanted to combine business with pleasure in talking about Penumbra's upcoming season. And as anyone familiar with his theater's output knows, Bellamy saves his less fortunate choices for the golf course.

I'm early when I arrive at Highland National Golf Course in St. Paul, but Bellamy beats me there and is already on the practice putting green. He'd been working until midnight the evening before directing technical rehearsals for Redshirts, a football drama that kicks off Penumbra's season. A couple of days later I ask him about how the show fits into Penumbra's mission as America's preeminent African American theater.

"I think it speaks for itself, really," Bellamy says, "when we begin to place so much investment in sports as a culture, and as a people. These athletes carry our colors. They're our gladiators, our manhood and womanhood. So much is at stake that you're forced to start playing the game, and identifying the stars, earlier and earlier in their lives."

Redshirts, a world premiere by Dana Yeaton, delves into the Faustian bargain young athletes make when they enter the money-fame nexus of big-time sports.

"If all the parties understand what's going on, then it's an okay deal," Bellamy adds. "But sometimes they're used and broken up and then thrown away. From my point of view, the community suffers immeasurably from that. Very few of these young people are responsible human beings as well as good athletes. They spend all their time and energy developing one side of themselves. But then, if you're poor and want to go to school, it might be your only way of doing it."

Bellamy has a knack for speaking directly. He's also quick to laugh and exudes the unassuming self-confidence of someone who has willed into being a remarkable body of work. He founded Penumbra in 1976 and has kept the lights on continuously since then. Today, the company is one of three African American theater companies in the country that stages a full season.

Penumbra is also a theater with its own aesthetic, developed over the decades by Bellamy and the company. It's a delicate wedding of realism and idealism, with works tackling social issues yet remaining grounded in the alchemy of a group of people establishing trust over a long period of time.

"We just understand each other very, very well," Bellamy says when I mention the acute, searching acting work of company member James Craven, who appears in Redshirts and has worked with Penumbra so much that Bellamy says he essentially "directs himself."

"That's one of the great things about an ensemble. It's what you cannot buy," Bellamy says. "It's hard to explain that to people. They say, get Lou to direct, then we'll get a show like they do at Penumbra. Or get Jim [Craven]. But it's a brain trust. It's borne out of years of working together, interpreting texts and life and all that kind of stuff.

"It's difficult to explain, even to people in the arts. They look at what's up there on that stage and they like it—some don't; to be frank, it's not for everybody—but the ones who are intrigued by it cannot put their finger on what it is they're seeing. They just know there's something there that's different, a deep cultural study, a whole different social order on the stage."

Before we hit the course, it's time to pay up back at the clubhouse. Bellamy produces cash from his pocket and, with a distinct twinkle, announces that he wants the senior discount.

The guy behind the cash register, no spring chicken himself, looks at Bellamy as though the director has sprouted a second head. When told that he needs to be 62 to claim the discount, Bellamy gleefully announces that he's 63. He could easily pass for a decade younger, and the attendant tells him as much.

"Don't make me have to show you this," Bellamy says, flashing a smile and doffing his cap to reveal his thinning pate.

A younger man with sparse hair passes by and notes the exchange. "You don't have to be 63 to have that little hair," he says dryly.

Bellamy is no ace on the links, but his game is solid (he typically shoots in the 80s, calling himself a "bogey guy"). He took up the game again this summer after a long hiatus, playing with his son and younger actors—and clearly coming down with the golfing bug.

For my part, it's the first time I've held a club in nearly 10 years. Bellamy is low-pressure and encouraging; when I swing and miss, he pronounces the stroke "practice," and later shouts encouragement when I miraculously give a ball a ride with an iron.

Bellamy isn't shooting particularly well this day, but he's a good enough sport not to mention that my atrocious game is blatantly rubbing off on him. Perhaps part of what is so appealing about this game is that it's a diversion from the deep waters he treads as an artist.

This year Bellamy received an Obie Award for his New York directorial debut of August Wilson's Two Trains Running. This year Penumbra is staging two Wilson works, The Piano Lesson and Gem of the Ocean (following the theater's traditional holiday show, Black Nativity).

"After August died, and after going to New York and what happened out there, the way people embraced the work, I thought we'd better lay this down and approach this work in a way that lasts," Bellamy says. "I'm going to direct them [Wilson's 10 plays] all. I want to lay down a line that says, here's a way to do it. It might not be the way, but it's a way that many people in the country think is okay."

After a pause, Bellamy adds, "August said that many of our shows were inspirations to him. He was an important member of our company."

It's an understatement, but beneath it is a profound truth: Penumbra, with a slate combining new work with potentially definitive stagings of Wilson's increasingly canonical dramas, might well be poised for a signature season. Adding a new wrinkle is the fact that Ocean will be staged at the Guthrie's McGuire Proscenium Stage. When it comes to partnering with the Twin Cities' theater colossus, Bellamy comes across both optimistic and pragmatic.

"You have to know who you are," he says, "and be very clear about that. An aesthetic is an ephemeral kind of thing. You want to be really clear aesthetically who you are, then I try to augment what I don't have with what someone else has. I'm really good at getting smart people around me. It doesn't scare me—I want them smarter than me. You want to mesh with someone complementary, then at the bottom it's mutual respect and fair play and so forth."

At the end of nine holes, I'm relieved. For the first time in my life I've managed to play without losing a ball, and I decide to call it quits. Bellamy shakes hands from his golf cart and decides to finish off the round. When I talk to him later, it turns out he nearly shot a hole in one.

"I shot an eight-iron on a par three," Bellamy enthuses. "It hit the green and rimmed the cup. It was really cool."

Bellamy sounds as happy as if he'd made the shot. After all, it isn't the laurels and awards that count, it's the experience. And in the matter of converting experience for the stage, few do it with as much assurance and self-possession.

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