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The Twin Cities are home to two of the nation's preeminent ethnic theaters. Voices of Minnesota profiles Lou Bellamy, director of the African American Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul; and Rick Shiomi, director of Minneapolis' Mu Performing Arts, which presents Asian-American theater and traditional Japanese Daiko drumming.


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[MUSIC PLAYING] GARY EICHTEN: And good afternoon. Welcome back to Midday on Minnesota Public Radio news. I'm Gary Eichten. Minnesota may not be the most diverse state in the Union, but the Twin Cities are home to two of the nation's preeminent ethnic theaters. Saint Paul's Penumbra Theater is dedicated to providing a forum for African-Americans. Penumbra helped launch the career of playwright, August Wilson.

The Mu performing arts in Minneapolis meanwhile presents, Asian-American theater and traditional Japanese taiko drumming. Over the next hour, we're going to get to know the men who lead these two acclaimed theaters, Mu performing arts Director, Rick Shiomi and the Penumbra Theaters, Lou Bellamy. Here with this special theater edition of Minnesota Public Radio's voices of Minnesota series, is Minnesota Public Radio's Marianne Combs.


MARIANNE COMBS: Growing up in Canada, Rick Shiomi wanted nothing to do with his Japanese heritage.

RICK SHIOMI: I in all the years I grew up never once ate sashimi, which is the raw fish. I wouldn't touch it, because it was just like I felt like it was allergic to me. It would turn me into being Japanese if I ate it. You know what I mean? That kind of subliminal fear.

MARIANNE COMBS: Today, Shiomi is one of the foremost purveyors of culture on the Asian-American experience. By contrast, Lou Bellamy grew up enveloped in the warm embrace of a Black neighborhood filled with community pride. Today he runs one of the most successful African-American theaters in the nation. But Bellamy says he worries about the future.

LOU BELLAMY: Because the community is used to anything good being skimmed off taken away, so that only the bad or what isn't marketable or what the larger society doesn't want to glom onto is left inside of the community.

MARIANNE COMBS: I'm Marianne Combs. Coming up in the next hour, we take a look at these two theater directors, and how their personal experiences have shaped their mission to tell the stories of their cultures.


Rick Shiomi sits in the rehearsal space of his warehouse theater in Northeast Minneapolis. He's dressed casually in jeans and a plaid shirt. And he beams a relaxed yet energetic grin. He's surrounded by evidence of his work. A cloth mural of a dragon hangs on one wall while another is decorated with traditional Japanese happi coats worn by taiko drummers. Large drums crowd together in a corner.

In the midst of all these images of his Japanese heritage, it's hard to believe that at one time Shiomi wanted nothing to do with anything Japanese. Shiomi grew up in Canada, the third generation of Japanese immigrants. Canada like the US, interned Japanese citizens during World War II. It then dispersed them across the country breaking up their sense of community. Shiomi's parents and older siblings were all interned. Shiomi was born after they were freed and had relocated to Toronto.

RICK SHIOMI: Growing up in Canada for me was really not a great experience partly because-- and I always inherently associated it with growing up Japanese-Canadian in Toronto. Small Japanese-Canadian community in Toronto pretty much dispersed. So in the school I was-- elementary school I was in, it was only maybe one or two other Japanese-Canadian kids in it. In the high school maybe a handful a few more.

But really I was mostly in that kind of let's assimilate into the Canadian world, or I didn't actually want to be Japanese for the longest time. And so it really-- when you're in that space where you're trying not to be something, it's actually a negative place. And so and it has a lot of anxieties about you worry about who you are, you worry about not fitting in and all those things.

MARIANNE COMBS: Where were your parents in this? Were they trying to encourage you to embrace your Japanese culture, or are they encouraging you to assimilate to the Canadian culture?

RICK SHIOMI: They were really trying to encourage me to assimilate into the Canadian culture. Because in many ways, what you could sense unspoken was the reality that in our home, the traditions of being Japanese or Japanese-Canadian or whatever that was had a strong feeling, a strong sensibility, a strong reality. But at the moment you stepped outside into the outside world, you had to be somebody else.

So in a sense, they never demanded that I learn Japanese. So to this day I don't know Japanese. I know a few words and they end up in all my plays. Those 10 words-- my favorite 10 words end up in every one of my plays. So I don't speak Japanese. It just cracks-- I mean there are things about it that can crack you up, in the sense that we ate rice and Japanese style food every four or five times a week. So that was a main part of our thing.

But within that reality, in all the years I grew up never once ate sashimi which is the raw fish. I wouldn't touch it, because it was just like I felt like it was allergic to me. It would turned me into being Japanese if I ate it. You know what I mean? That kind of subliminal fear.

MARIANNE COMBS: This fear and anxiety over his own cultural roots lasted through college. Shiomi felt he needed to get out of Toronto but he didn't know where to. After a couple of years working in Canada, he decided it was time to see the world.

RICK SHIOMI: I started out in Vancouver. Decided I wanted to visit Europe, because I thought my cultural roots were in Europe because that's where the education I'd grown up with and everything. And all of my friends or all the people that I knew, that was the place to go. So this is back-- this is a long time ago-- back in the early '70s. So I went to Europe for like four or five months, and planning to stay there maybe six months maybe eight months and then come back.

But when I got there, I actually went to England first, stayed a month there. Went down to Greece. Was there in the winter. And while I was in Greece, I met this German fellow who we became friends. And he made me think of wanting to do something actually completely different from what I had intended. Just because I feel like-- even traveling in Europe, I felt like I was in a bubble, because you have this bubble of money and free time, and you're actually a tourist and not an adventurer.

But when I was in Greece I thought, where's the last place in the world I would think of going? Well, it's Japan. So I'll go there. So with that kind of thing, I sat down and wrote my parents a letter and said, you know, I've decided not to come back next month. In fact, I'm going to Japan. And they said, what? But really I was on my own.

So then I just basically traveled by bus and train and boat from Greece across the Mideast, across Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, flew down to Thailand, Bangkok, flew up to Hong Kong and eventually ended up in Japan. And it was really fascinating. I mean, just a whole-- it just like opened my eyes to the whole world as opposed to growing up in Toronto kind of thing.

MARIANNE COMBS: What did you learn in Japan? I mean, what was it like for you being in Japan and confronting this culture that you had said, I'm never going to go there. This is the last place on Earth I'd go to.

RICK SHIOMI: I think two things. One was actually being in Asia to begin with. Being in India and then in Thailand and then primarily in Hong Kong and then in Japan was the whole reversal of racial identity. And that is that suddenly I went from being the person that stood out in the crowd to the person who blended into the crowd. And what I also saw is the reversal of people that I knew, who went from being the people who blend into the crowd in North America to the people who stood out in the crowd in Asia.

And I could see-- what I saw in them was so fascinating is the same behaviors that we had in Canada-- I mean that I had in North America in a sense. Not exactly the same, but that same sensibility of why are people looking at me? Or why can't we fit in? That whole because they're not a part of this general flow of people in a sense. And so my image or my metaphor was it was like when I was in Asia and when I was in Hong Kong and Japan, I felt like this kind of knot inside my stomach was released.

Because I no longer had to worry about whether somebody would point to me and say, what are you doing here? Or who are you? Or that kind of thing. Even though I couldn't speak the language, as long as I didn't open my mouth, I could walk along the street and nobody would think. Once they encountered me then funny things would happen. But up to that moment, there was that invisibility that I had there that really opened my mind to why I was feeling that anxiety here.

And then the other thing was just a fascination in-- particular with Japan-- the fascination with the culture and the sensibility. I mean just the encountering of how in some things I truly felt a connection to Japan and Japanese culture. And in other ways, I just felt like I was so American. In some ways my political beliefs or my social beliefs were so American that even though I saw how different they were, I wasn't about to cash them in to take on these Japanese cultural values in a sense.

So it was really interesting for me to differentiate what was Japanese and what was Japanese-Canadian and what was basically Canadian in a sense or North American in that sense.

MARIANNE COMBS: But it's just amazing to me that at the age of 25 was your first experience with fitting into a crowd. At least from first viewpoint that that was your first experience at the age of 25 of not sticking out.

RICK SHIOMI: Yes, absolutely. Other than the weddings or things like that where community or family gatherings, but they were always again part of that home thing. But yeah, the first time in a general societal way of being within a whole group of people, of a whole society of people, and being a part of that inherently on a basis of racial identity.

It was really a huge experience. And really opened my eyes to when you are the minority in those situations, whether you're White in Japan or Japanese-Canadian in Canada, that that in and of itself starts generating certain kinds of attitudes, certain kinds of anxieties, certain kinds of choices about who you are.

MARIANNE COMBS: Rick Shiomi returned to Canada with a new sense of identity. Not Canadian or Japanese but a hybrid of the two. He became a key player in a new generation of Japanese-Canadian artists and activists who were embracing their Japanese heritage, organizing festivals and learning taiko drumming. And for the first time, Shiomi looked closely at the history of the Japanese in Canada.

RICK SHIOMI: If you can imagine this, all of the things with the internment camps, all of that happened, all that history was like this vague family thing that we never learned anything in school about it, that I never in my own world was interested in it. So I knew nothing about. And so suddenly when I'm in my late 20s, I am encountering this information about what happened to the Japanese-Canadians in during the Second World War.

And how the irony of it is that when I was growing up, when always believes that the desire to assimilate is an individual choice. So that you decide you don't want to be Japanese-Canadian because of your own choices and you do these things. And what I realized was that from the internment, is that the Canadian government deliberately dispersed the Japanese-Canadian community, which was a very compact community in Vancouver prior to the war and around Vancouver and along the West Coast of British Columbia.

They were all moved to the camps. And then there was a deliberate policy-- unlike in the United States-- a deliberate policy of moving people away and spreading them out. And it actually came from Mackenzie King-- who was the prime minister at the time-- from one of his early research papers where he said, if there was one Japanese-Canadian family in every town, there would be no Japanese-Canadian problem. Which is a beautiful concept, because he was so right.

I mean, if you want to eliminate the power base of any community, is just simply disperse them, so that no individual has the strength to stand out and say, there's something wrong here.

MARIANNE COMBS: And that's exactly where your family was when you were growing up. It was that situation. You were one or two families in that school.

RICK SHIOMI: In that school. And so that whole thing of that my family being a part of a very close knit community to bring spread out and across Canada and then those who are in Toronto being spread out within Toronto was totally a part of that plan. And so my growing up became a part of that plan. Because it was intended by the government for me to assimilate in that sense if the government were thinking far enough ahead.

And I actually think they were. So that if I grew up without speaking Japanese, if I grew up with no connections to the Japanese community, my instinct would be to assimilate and not think of myself as Japanese-Canadian. This is a very interesting question because that plan succeeded admirably, until a whole group of that generation-- of my generation what we call the Sansei or third generation and fourth generation Japanese-Canadians-- began to realize what the game was.

And then there was this whole kind of turning back toward that kind of classic, we need to come back and connect to the Japanese-Canadian community. We need to recognize what happened historically. And so the whole-- in terms of Canada and I think in terms of much of the United States, the real movement for redress and reparations which happened back in the '80s, '70s and '80s, was really that third generation asserting its political voice saying, what happened there to begin with was wrong, and then what happened there in fact infected all of our lives without us realizing it.

MARIANNE COMBS: You're listening to Voices of Minnesota. I'm Marianne Combs. Coming up in the second half hour, we talk with Penumbra Theater's artistic director, Lou Bellamy. Growing up in Toronto, Rick Shiomi had always dreamed of being a writer. But whenever he sat down to write something, his mind shut down. He felt completely blocked to express himself. Now he attributes that block to his own lack of acceptance of who he really was.

But in his time traveling across Asia and then later working with Japanese families in Canada, Shiomi found his voice. His first play about a Japanese Canadian character-- much like Columbo-- was a hit and received a glowing review in the New York Times. Shiomi began working with budding Asian-American theaters across North America and talking at universities. He developed a relationship with Augsburg College, more specifically, a relationship with one of its professors, now his wife. He moved to Minneapolis.

RICK SHIOMI: I actually when I came here didn't intend to start a theater company. Because I personally thought it would be impossible to do. I mean, there wasn't anybody here. In fact, when I started coming here I kept thinking, what am I going to do here? I spent the last 12 years of my life involved in Asian-American, Asian-Canadian theater. I spent the last 20 years of my life involved in Asian-Canadian or American issues and social culture all those things. And I come here and like I know two people who are Asian-American.

MARIANNE COMBS: But as Shiomi says often happens to him, soon his next project presented itself. A grad student wanted to start a new theater company and asked Shiomi to help him. The goal was to tell stories, not just of Japanese-Americans, but the stories of people coming to the United States from China, Korea Laos Vietnam and elsewhere across Asia. But since there were still relatively few of these people living in Minnesota, Shiomi was skeptical. He knew he had his work cut out for him.

RICK SHIOMI: If I saw somebody Asian-American on the streets, I'd come up to them and say, have you ever thought of being on stage? And most of the people that we got originally were young people out of the U of M or out of the colleges, out of the Asian-American programs and things like that or just people that knew each other. And we did some workshops with them initially, and we found that there was a group of people who were interested in theater.

None of them had real training in theater. And so that's where we started from. But it's been great. I mean the whole aspect of how much training people have now as opposed to then is huge. But still I'd say at least half the Asian-American actors we deal with, if not more, don't have formal training. There's only their personal interest that has led them into theater. And the same for me, I don't have any formal training in theater.

MARIANNE COMBS: You have a lot of practical training.

RICK SHIOMI: A lot of training in life.

MARIANNE COMBS: You spoke earlier about when the proposal for an Asian-American theater first came your way, you were just like whoa, that's a wild concept. Now looking at it, do you think that the Twin Cities needs an Asian-American theater?

RICK SHIOMI: Oh, definitely. I think it's really been a great cultural expression and success in a lot of ways. I feel like we have been part of a changing landscape in the Twin Cities. Because when I got here in the early '90s, it was really like the last of-- I hate to say this-- but the last of the good old days. The last of the days when you could think of Minneapolis Saint Paul and not think of the issue of diversity.

And not think of that is there somebody other than the kind of European, Norwegian, German, English stock here. Not think about any of those issues. It was kind of the last of those days. And so then one of again a part of our good timing was we came and started a company when people and foundations were beginning to ask that question and say, even though it's unlikely, maybe the issue of diversity should be looked at here in the Twin Cities or in Minnesota.

And so I really give them credit for recognizing a trend that was going to happen over the next 10, 15 years in supporting our company in that development. So much goes in cycles again. And so I'd say the first five or six years, we got support simply because we were the right company at the right time in the right place. And the right people wanted to support us. But what's happened in the last five or six years, is that we've really established a kind of artistic cultural voice and credibility.

So that those foundations that might then say, well now you've had your turn and it's over and now we're looking at other kinds of diversity, are still funding us because they're saying, well, but you're now bringing a valuable and artistically important voice to the Twin Cities scene. And so therefore on the legitimacy of that, we're sustaining your work in a sense or supporting your work. So I think that was-- so we've made that transition from the startup that was the right idea to the ongoing organization that has the right artistic work, and it's the important work. And so I think that that's important.

And I do think that that's critical. There are some people that believe that if you've had the success and therefore created this pool of Asian-American actors, now they can go out and be in the other companies, and then you don't need an Asian-American theater company anymore. But the problem is that in fact, most of those other companies may do one Asian-American play every three or five years. Not to be critical of the Guthrie, but I'm not sure that they've done one in the last 10 years.

So given that you start to think, where would that voice go if we weren't here? It would just go back to that sporadic and if I know anything, it's that you have to stay present in the minds of people, because last year was a long time ago, and five years ago is like another lifetime in a sense. So that you have to stay in the minds of people, in the cultural world of people. And I think the only way to do that is to have an Asian-American performance company in that sense.

MARIANNE COMBS: What do you feel that you've taken away from this experience of turning back to your culture, having turned your back on your Japanese heritage, but now turning around and embracing it, and really taking it on as your life's path talking about experiences of people like yourself who've come to the United States or their parents have come to the United States and they've created this other hybrid culture of two worlds?

RICK SHIOMI: I think for me it's been such a great experience. It's really to me-- again, I use the word motherlode, because for me it was tremendously valuable. It's not everyone's journey in a sense. Because I would have thought-- I actually would have thought had I been more interested in being a teacher or more interested in being a dentist or something like that a lawyer-- I might have been less inclined to go on the journey that I've been on in a sense. Because I've been involved in the arts, I really have even more so understood the political, social realities of life as a Japanese-Canadian or a Japanese-American in North America.

For example in theater, for example, it's just that it's not just that I'm finding that I was finding this motherlode of emotional, personal cultural richness for myself, but it was the reality that much of theater in North America wouldn't recognize the validity of that theater. And so you're placed in the center of the political, cultural, social struggle. And so in a way, I never felt like I was ever interested in turning my back on that.

And even though things have improved considerably, if you still ask any Asian-American actor in New York or LA or Minnesota, is it a difficult thing to be an Asian-American performer in theater? They would say, absolutely. Because they're having to prove themselves all over again in all those other companies. If there's a Tennessee Williams player or if there's all those things, they're having to prove their validity as people being able to do that kind of work even while they're still recognizing themselves as Asian-American or whatever kind of thing.

And so I feel like that is an important-- to me it's an important social struggle that basically as you noted, just seems to be through line of that journey once I turn the corner in a sense. And I don't think-- that's the one corner when I turn that corner, I don't think I could ever go back around it, simply because it informs too much of my understanding of who I am and how I got here and what I'm doing. And just that's just the reality of it. It's just something that I feel confident about, and it has made me a much better person in that sense than I might have been had I not gone on this journey at all.

MARIANNE COMBS: Rick Shiomi, artistic director of Mu Performing Arts, which produces both theatrical productions on the Asian-American experience and traditional Japanese taiko drumming concerts. You're listening to voices of Minnesota on Minnesota Public Radio. I'm Marianne Combs.


When Rick Shiomi first arrived in the Twin Cities, Lou Bellamy had already been directing at Penumbra Theater for a good 15 years. In all its history, the Penumbra Theater has never left its birthplace, the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center, in the heart of the Rondo neighborhood. In the community center's library, a tall lean, Lou Bellamy, sits surrounded by the photographs of people who made the community center possible. Many of these people are long gone, but Bellamy grew up knowing them.

LOU BELLAMY: I used to go to Hallie Q. Brown Community Center when I was a kid. My dad went there. He played for their basketball team. So I've been on this hill for 60 years on and off. I went away to school and so forth, and I live west of town now. But this is still-- I'm a Saint Paul person just through and through.

MARIANNE COMBS: For Bellamy, exploring and celebrating his cultural background has meant staying put. He attended Mankato State University, then went to the University of Minnesota to get a master's in theater. He was a popular actor, but he wanted to direct. So he bartered with local theater companies that if he acted in one show, he could direct another.

He got a job as the cultural arts director at the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center just as it received a sizable grant. Penumbra was born. While Bellamy has looked at moving the theater into its own professional space several times, he's never considered taking it out of the Rondo neighborhood.

LOU BELLAMY: It's important to me. I mean, I used to get in an argument all the time with August Wilson about culture and where it is reposed. And it was during the time we were looking at trying to get a different facility and look about where that might be. And August said, culture's in your pocket. You take it wherever you go. Wherever you go it's there. You don't have to worry about it. Well, I thought that it's in the ground. And it has something to do with the dirt and the places you stand.

And maybe I'm just a romantic, but I like to believe that being in those places that are close to the land, that are where other people walked that you care about, it's important. Booker T Washington said, send down your bucket where you are. So I think it's important

MARIANNE COMBS: What was it like growing up as a teenager in the Rondo neighborhood?

LOU BELLAMY: Fabulous. Now I'm 61. So I was born in 1944. And integration was successful in certain parts of the state and in certain parts of America. And Minnesota was I mean considered to be a relatively forward thinking state. Although parts of our past don't speak to that very well, the lynching in Duluth and so forth. In fact, we lived at-- my grandmother lived at 1119 Sherburne, and a cross was burned on her lawn in front of her house.

So there was a Black community that was healthy and had systems and institutions that took care of themselves. I think that the integration that we've been witness to is good for the most part, but there are some drawbacks. I think it's a double-edged sword. And some of the things we lost were those wonderful institutions that cared for and maintained and oiled the skids for Black folks. Those were fully in place when I was a kid running around here.

I wasn't a model child. I got into a lot of trouble. I mean I just found things to get into. And without doubt, all the people in the neighborhood-- on the block, in the alley where I'd be tipping over trash cans or whatever it might be-- would know who I was, tell my parents or accost me themselves. Because there was a responsibility. The community was so small that all of the elements, good and bad were all part of the community.

So you had some questionable elements, after hours joints, all those things, next door to churches, next door to soda fountains, and it was just it was like a wonderful little warm private existence. And it was a wonderful, wonderful place to be, really safe. I would leave the house in the morning in the summer-- I don't tend to remember school too much, but I remember summers.

And I would get up, make cereal or whatever it was I was going to have, and then I would go and play all day long. And the only rule was is I had to be home before the streetlights came on. I mean, there were unhappy things-- that as I say penetrated that, but not to the point where it made it heavy or ugly. It was just a wonderful time. I'd never heard the term ghetto even until I was hitchhiking home from Mankato and I got picked up somewhere around Shakopee, and this guy was coming to the cities and he said, where do you live?

And I said-- at that time we were living at 489 Central-- and I said there, he said, oh you live in the ghetto. And I went, oh the ghetto, I got to look this word up. Because it just never occurred to us. It was just a wonderful warm place to be.

MARIANNE COMBS: When you look back at your youth and then you look around you at the young African-American kids growing up today, how alike or how different are the two?

LOU BELLAMY: Boy, that's an interesting question. As I said, a lot of those institutions that used to maintain and nurture people have gone by the wayside. There are still several and still adults and older people who care and are watching over folks. Hallie Q. Brown Community Center where Penumbra is housed is a wonderful example. In here you have senior programs, you've got daycare. The seniors help watch the kids in daycare. They call them grandma and all that kind of stuff.

Kids come around and they know the lines of our plays. We don't have closed rehearsals, so quite often they're watching the shows. You still have that sort of community feeling here. The world is a more dangerous place. Drugs in the Black community have decimated it. In fact, I think drugs are one of the most pressing problems that we may have in the United States. And I wouldn't have said that back in the day when I was in Hallie Q. and doing drugs and all that sort of stuff myself, of course not.

But as I stand away from it now, that's a real challenge. And it exacerbates any problem that is really there. The opportunity to earn great amounts of money outside of the law brings all elements into the community. Increasingly there's a fear factor that is coming between these generations that is it's troubling. I don't think that art is the savior for everything certainly, but art does allow all those generations to get together to begin to consider issues together in on a project.

I mean, I started out in theater because I wanted to meet girls. Well, I didn't know that I wanted to meet them, but I found them when I got into theater. It's still a wonderful place to meet people around literature, around reading, all those good things that we should be valuing as a society, I think they're in that theatrical process. And so I'm glad that we're inside of this community. I can't imagine us being anywhere else.

And the wonderful thing is that we've been able to get a degree of respect for the quality of the work without having to leave it. And I'm telling you, Marianne, that's an absolute gift, that I have been able to make the kind of living that I have-- and I'm not one of the Gettys or something, but I'm not on the soup line either. But I've done fairly well, and I haven't had to leave this warm thing that I care so much about, this community.

And I've had people come to me-- not so much in the last few years-- but I have had Black folks see a show here-- see something that I directed or that I acted in-- and they'll look at me and they'll say something like, you know you're really good. And I go like, well, thank you. No, no, I mean you're really good. Why are you still here? And that is you see it makes you groan even. Why are you still here?

Because the community is used to anything good being skimmed off, taken away, so that only the bad or what isn't marketable or what the larger society doesn't want to glom onto is left inside of the community. And that permeates the people. And they begin to treat themselves that way. They look at me and say, you're good. What are you doing still here? Well, this is where I want to be, you see. And I find myself happiest around artists who feel the same.

And there's a number of them that have been a part of Penumbra over the years. These are people who will travel, who will go to Broadway, who will do all that sort of stuff and have, but the art that they do isn't separate from who they think they are. It's their citizenship. It's their way of contributing to the world, and they're fierce and responsible about it. And those are the artists that I would prefer to be around, and fortunately since I run the organization, I can be around the ones I want to be around.

MARIANNE COMBS: You're listening to Voices of Minnesota on Minnesota Public Radio. I'm Marianne Combs. The Penumbra Theater has received many accolades over the years for the quality of its performances and for its role in championing new plays. Lou Bellamy co-created, Black Nativity, a holiday musical that celebrates African-American cultural traditions. But despite its stellar artistic record, Director Lou Bellamy, has never managed to secure the funding needed to give the Penumbra a space all to itself with a full stage, adequate parking and a level of prestige that befits a first-rate theater company.

Penumbra requested state money the same year as the Guthrie Theater requested funds for its new theater complex. The legislature provided the Guthrie with $25 million, while the Penumbra didn't get a dime. Bellamy admits the company has had its internal financial struggles in the past, but he insists they are just that, a thing of the past. After several tries, Bellamy says he's tired of pursuing state support. He's given up.

He says he personally won't be going back to the legislature for another request. Instead, the company has made some renovations to their space at the Hallie Q. Brown Center. Bellamy says for now, they'll make do with what they've always had, a converted lecture hall.

LOU BELLAMY: We have to give Hallie Q. Brown and those forward thinkers inside of the community their due. If they hadn't put that lecture hall in there, we wouldn't be talking about this. So they didn't have the idea about a professional theater being in their midst. But I think they did recognize the importance of providing a holistic experience for their community and so it was there.

And it is still our home. It has shaped our style. There are people-- there's a theater that I'm told is in Omaha-- I've never seen it-- that is built on this model. It looks exactly like ours. Now, there's a lot wrong with this. This is a lecture hall, but for instance, we've got this style, this what's called this confrontative style. It's based in a naturalistic tradition, but it'll reach off the stage and grab you.

And we act in the aisles a lot. Well, it's real simple, the stage isn't big enough. So you've got to be somewhere. And it looks as though that was a conscious decision, but it's something that evolved. This is delicate to talk about the Community Center. And I think that in the way I've talked about Hallie Q. Brown, you can see that I respect and love it and understand its place in our community. But it isn't a theater, and it does not have offer the kind of spectacle and so forth that I think that a professional theater of the caliber of Penumbra should be able to offer.

We should have some-- and we've done a wonderful renovation. It's gorgeous back there. I go back there and turn the lights down and just get all warm and fuzzy in it. I mean it's really neat, but-- and not but-- this work is worthy of more. It can reach farther into the community. It can offer more to our society if it were supported in a different kind of way and we're allowed to do the kinds of educational programs, the kind of educational outreach.

The plays I choose are good literature, but they also have a consciousness about them. They have a worth that is beyond their worth as entertainment, and that needs to be contextualized. That needs to be teased out. I'm doing art straight out of the Black Arts Movement that says that artists have a kind of responsibility to their community. And that's what we're exercising. Because of the realities of the world, we have to balance budgets and so forth.

And we have a wonderful board who makes that one of their priorities. But at the same time we have-- I believe-- the responsibility to make our community better, to make our world better, and to share these ideas and give people ways to apply them and consider these hard and gorgeous questions that these people are writing. So I can do theater anywhere. I can do it in my basement. I can do it in a car. I can do it on a bus. I don't need lights. I don't need all that stuff, because I know what I'm doing.

That doesn't mean that it doesn't say something about a community when they value certain things over other things. I mean, it's really a statement. We've got these things, these expressions like you put your money where your mouth is. You know what I mean? Those kinds of things. And that really does mean something. I think that for African-Americans, we recognize the worth of this art we're doing, but it should be supported much, much better. I mean, it should be better taken care of.

And the idea that a world-class theater like Penumbra-- and I'm not blowing my own horn. This is the people that do it. I didn't write the articles that say we're good-- has to struggle the way it does. And I don't mind struggle. I believe it builds character. My grandma told me that. I believe it. But this our state, our cities should be prouder of this work and take care of it better and want to share it at a different level. If they did, I am sure that people would come in droves from all over the world to partake in it.

MARIANNE COMBS: So what needs to change?

LOU BELLAMY: Well, I like Bill Clinton. He's a smart, smart guy. And I really think that he was on to something when he began to recognize the power of racism to influence governmental agendas, societal agendas in this society. I think it was Carter G. Woodson that said, the problem of the 20th century will be the problem of the color line.

And I think he was more perspicacious than he thought, because it still is a problem. And it's a problem that is embarrassing for America to address. And maybe that's why we don't get at it, because we think we've solved that. We had the war on that, and we don't have to worry about that anymore. But I think that it is seriously about privilege and the non-privileged, and it's about racism.

And I think until we have these kinds of frank discussions inside of our communities-- and theater is doing that. I mean we're at it. But we're not investing in that discussion in the way that we should. I think we've been very short-sighted in the kinds of investments we've made as a society. And we pay for those. August Wilson does it poetically in his plays. I mean he's got people-- he always talks about these big old hands.

What am I going to do with these big old hands? That's potential. That's a community that's just crouching ready to move, and we have no place to put it. We don't have the educational structures and so forth. I don't know what the answers are, but I do know what the result is and it's everywhere. It's everywhere I go in every major city. And so I suppose that I shouldn't feel that we're any worse off than anyone else. I don't know.

But I think I'll count it as one of my-- not shortcomings-- but one of the things that I didn't get done if we can't one appoint this organization, this theater the way that it should be eventually. I mean, we should have a much farther reach than we do, and it should be supported and so forth by our community.

MARIANNE COMBS: Lou Bellamy, is proud of the role his theater plays in its community. While tickets to a Penumbra show often cost $30, its rehearsals are open, and Bellamy says he often sees neighborhood kids hanging out in the theater after school. He says, on any given night you might have an all Black audience, an all White audience or a mix. He says that diversity becomes an important part of the theatrical experience.

LOU BELLAMY: One of the things about live theater is the audience really truly plays a part. And with African-Americans, sometimes that's a little more than you might expect. I mean, I remember we were doing a Ma Rainey, and my brother was playing Levee. And he's up on this bench jabbing a knife at the sky, and he's calling down God, and he's cursing, and well this lady-- a Black woman in the audience-- shouted out when he got up there and started.

She said, you shut your blaspheming mouth. I mean, she was in that play. You know what I mean? And so there's that kind of give and take in our audiences that I prefer. So this theater has to be around Black people. It has to be where they have easy access to the art and to the artists. Artists change communities.

MARIANNE COMBS: You're listening to voices of Minnesota on Minnesota Public Radio. I'm Marianne Combs. This past year, African-American playwright, August Wilson, died of liver cancer. Wilson spent a dozen years in Minnesota just as he was gaining national recognition for his work, and developed a close relationship with the Penumbra Theater company. Bellamy says Wilson did much to lure white Americans to theaters to learn about the African-American experience. But Bellamy says there are plenty more talented writers out there waiting to be produced.

LOU BELLAMY: He didn't just drop from the sky. He was nurtured, and he grew out of a tradition of Black writing that he found outside of the educational system incidentally. But he found and began to find himself inside of those things. Just as he found himself inside other writers, there are writers who are doing the same thing with him right now.

There are a number of young people and older writers that still haven't-- see America has this thing about one. There can be this one Black playwright who is the voice of the people. There can be this one woman who speaks for all women. And it's just a bunch of crap. But August was chosen to be that one. And fortunately, he had the depth of character and craft so that he could rise to the occasion.

But there are several others that are around and writing very, very well that have not had their time in the limelight yet. And they're there. But you got to invest in them. I know that. You've got to take chances with them. The first time we did an August Wilson play here-- and he's the mark right now-- but I mean, people were walking out of here in droves and especially women. Because he'd written this play set in the old West called, Black Bart And the Sacred Hills, and it was a takeoff on the Lysistrata theme.

And these women were withholding sexual favors till the men stopped gun fighting and so forth. Well, it was a tad sexist, just a little. And I'm telling you the women-- I was standing at the door with my arms out trying to keep me in, and they were running by me. And I remember standing out there saying, I'll never-- who is this August Wilson? I'm never doing another play. So I think you got to invest in them. But I just know that we don't have to worry.

The community, the people that August chose to write about and gives such great dignity to were common everyday folks. They were garbage collectors, musicians, cab drivers for heaven's sakes. These aren't kings and queens. And our community has a wealth of them and an oral tradition that all these people are part of. So I'm really not worried, not a lick.

MARIANNE COMBS: Lou Bellamy says, despite the funding problems the Penumbra Theater company has suffered, he's still amazed when he looks back and thinks of all that it has accomplished in the last 30 years.

LOU BELLAMY: We're still by very many standards, the preeminent Black theater in the world. Can you believe it? And so that we've done a lot of things right, a whole lot of things right. And I think we should be really proud of that. We should be proud of a state and some cities that value that, that give you enough support that you might succeed or fail on the basis of your own merit. It isn't that way in all cities. We do have something very special here. I just don't think we've finished the job.

MARIANNE COMBS: Penumbra Theater Artistic Director, Lou Bellamy. You've been listening to voices of Minnesota on Minnesota Public Radio. I'm Marianne Combs.

GARY EICHTEN: By the way, if you're interested in learning more about either the Mu Performing Arts or Penumbra, both of them have shows that are up and running right now. Penumbra's annual Black Nativity holiday musical is on stage through Christmas Eve. Mu Performing Arts presents a taiko drumming concert at the Southern theater in Minneapolis. It runs through December 11th.


That does it for our midday program today. Gary Eichten here. I'd like to thank you so much for tuning in. And we hope you'll be able to join us tomorrow, 11:00 to 1:00, here on Minnesota Public Radio news for Midday.

MARIANNE COMBS: Programming is supported by Iron Range Resources, advancing regional growth, through the creation of jobs in Northeastern Minnesota. Iron Range Resources, working for you. Online at

GARY EICHTEN: This is Minnesota Public Radio.


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