Sarah Bellamy to step into her father's shoes at Penumbra

Lucas Bellamy in Sleep Depravation Chamber at Penumbra Theatre.
Lucas Bellamy in Sleep Depravation Chamber at Penumbra Theatre.
Photo by Rich Ryan

Sarah Bellamy had a simple message Monday evening at Penumbra Theater. "My mission is not to put butts in seats," she says.

Instead, the goal of the theater should be to provide strong, challenging, and confrontational art that honestly shows the African-American experience in Minnesota and the world.

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Bellamy, the daughter of Penumbra's founder Lou Bellamy, will share the artistic direction of the theater for the next three seasons. In 2017, at the start of the company's 40th anniversary, she will take charge as her father retires.

Monday's program provided a fierce and rousing re-committment to the values and aesthetic that Lou Bellamy started with nearly 40 years ago. It also provided a snapshot into the current financial situation of the theater, which faced an ongoing crisis in recent years that threatened the producing side of the company.

Sarah Bellamy sees Penumbra's place as a vital one for African-American theater, both locally and nation-wide. While there have been advances made in Twin Cities theater as far as black stories being told and black actors, writers, and directors finding work, a strong voice is still needed, she says.

Bellamy pointed to the opening show for 2014, The Ballad of Emmett Till, as an example of this. The play, about a black youth murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for whistling at a white woman. The show was booked in the wake of Trayvon Martin's killing as a way, like Penumbra has done for decades, to illuminate the real African-American experience in the United States.

From a financial standpoint, the theater has worked to increase donor contributions. That's a key area for any arts organization, but especially so for an African-American institution, notes Michael Kaiser, the president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and a key architect to Penumbra's plans.

While a typical arts organization will see 60 percent of its finances come from donations, African-American ones only receive six percent on average, Kaiser says.

Improving that is part of a three-pronged approach to success. The first, strong art, has always been a part of Penumbra. The other two, aggressive marketing and a large, active, and varied board, are places the theater could improve.

To that end, the theater has added a new marketing director and has worked to increase the size and breadth of the board of directors, says Chris Widdess, Penumbra's managing director.

As someone who grew up at Penumbra, Sarah Bellamy knows the value that the theater can bring to its artists and patrons.

She recalled a production of Fences that she was in at age 13. Her father played the lead in August Wilson's drama about a man whose baseball career was ruined by the racism of the day. Bellamy would watch the audience through a gap in the set.

"Every night, on one line, I would see flashes of white in the audiences," she says. "It took me a while to figure out that it was tissues being pulled out by the women and men in the audience."

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