Listen: Bellamy, Rambo and Harrison on the legacy of the Black Arts Movement

As part of Arts Week, MPR’s Marianne Combs has a conversation with scholar Paul Carter Harrison and Penumbra’s Lou Bellamy. The group discusses the history behind the Black Arts Movement and its impact.

This Midday program is co-hosted by local performer T. Mychael Rambo.


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MARIANNE COMBS: --of the sun. Imagine that. Mostly sunny on Saturday afternoon. Highs around 40, lows 25. Saturday night, 40 again, and they say sunny on Sunday as well.

What's the beginning of the week looking like? Highs of 40 on Monday, highs 30 to 35 on Tuesday and Wednesday. So warm temperatures at the beginning of next week. 30 now, cloudy, in Saint Paul.


Today on Midday we look at the legacy of the Black Arts Movement. I'm Marianne Combs. We explore the movement's past and its future with Penumbra Theater, director Lou Bellamy, and scholar, Paul Carter Harrison. My cohost this hour is performer and arts educator, T. Mychael Rambo. It's the last day of Arts Week coming up after the news.

LOUISE SCHIAVONE: From NPR News in Washington, I'm Louise Schiavone. January's unemployment rate dropped to 8.3% according to the labor department. Speaking in Northern Virginia, President Obama said he was encouraged by the 0.2% decline.

BARACK OBAMA: These numbers will go up and down in the coming months, and there's still far too many Americans who need a job or need a job that pays better than the one they have now. But the economy is growing stronger.

LOUISE SCHIAVONE: Job growth in January was stronger than expected. NPR's John Ydstie tells us that employers added 243,000 jobs last month.

JOHN YDSTIE: The unemployment rate dropped for the fifth straight month to 8.3% in January, down from 8.5% in December. Analysts had expected no decline. The number of jobs added to payrolls was almost double what was expected. On average, employers have now added about 200,000 jobs to payrolls in each of the past three months. That's 50,000 more than the average for 2011.

Also, revisions to the unemployment data indicate that overall the economy added 200,000 more jobs last year than was previously reported. John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.

LOUISE SCHIAVONE: A war of words between Israel and Iran has erupted over the fresh fear that Israel could be preparing to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. NPR'S Garcia-Navarro reports from Jerusalem that US officials have voiced concerns that a strike could be imminent.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: In an interview with the Washington Post, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said he was concerned that Israel could strike Iran by this spring over its suspected nuclear weapons program. In Israel, Minister of Defense Ehud Barak is warning that later could be too late. Iran responded today. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khomeini said that the Islamic Republic will not yield to international pressure to abandon its nuclear course. He threatened retaliation, promising to back any group that acts against Israel.

Iran is facing increasing international pressure in the form of hard-hitting sanctions on its oil industry and central bank. It maintains its nuclear program is only used for civilian purposes, but most intelligence suggests Iran could have the bomb within a year. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Jerusalem.

LOUISE SCHIAVONE: As predicted, blizzard conditions are sweeping across Colorado. Portions of interstates 70 and 25 were closed. At the National Weather Service, forecaster Michael Eckert said the storm is heading to other states.

MICHAEL ECKERT: We have a large area of showers and thunderstorms from Kansas down into Oklahoma. We have a tornado watch in effect for much of western Oklahoma through the morning. Behind the system a lot of cold air is coming in, and we have some very heavy snowfall over Colorado, extending up into western portions of Nebraska.

LOUISE SCHIAVONE: Parts of Wyoming, Iowa, and Kansas are also bracing for a good shot of winter. The Dow up 140 points. This is NPR.

NARRATOR: Support for news comes from the Skoll Foundation, supporting social entrepreneurs and their innovations to solve the world's most pressing problems at

PHIL PICARDI: From Minnesota Public Radio News, I'm Phil picardie. Outgoing University of Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi is defending his tenure at the university. A day after he announced he's stepping down, university president Eric Kaler called it a mutual decision to replace Maturi when his contract expires at the end of June. Fans have questioned Maturi's leadership, particularly, after the school's big revenue sports football and basketball have continued to struggle. Maturi told NPR News this morning winning isn't easy.

JOEL MATURI: I understand the nature of my position and the openness of it and the passion of the fans who want to win all the time and are looking for some easy reasons to be critical when you don't. And the fact of the matter is, most of those people who are critical have never sat in the chair. And though they may be well-meaning, they don't really have all the facts that might enable them to make a different decision.

PHIL PICARDI: Maturi also defended the number of teams the U maintains. He said only drastic cuts, as many as a half dozen teams, would give a significant funding boost to higher profile sports. Minnesota is having a mild flu season so far this year, but that's not just due to the mild winter weather. Chris Erisman, an epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health, says it's probably not that simple.

CHRIS ERISMAN: It's important to keep in mind that flu season in the northern hemisphere is the same months whether you're in Florida or whether you're in Minnesota, and so even though ours has been pretty mild, their weather is that much better. And they will still see cases of influenza.

PHIL PICARDI: 52 Minnesotans have been hospitalized for influenza since the fall. More than twice that many had been hospitalized at this time last year. Deaths are also down this season, and health officials have seen fewer outbreaks in schools and nursing homes. Health officials worry the milder flu season might make it harder to convince people to get vaccinated next year. This is Minnesota Public Radio News.


MARIANNE COMBS: You're listening to Midday on Minnesota Public Radio News. I'm Marianne Combs. We end our Arts Week on Midday today with a look at the legacy of the Black Arts Movement. Joining me as my cohost today is performer and arts educator T. Mychael Rambo. T. Mychael, welcome. Thanks for joining me today.

T. MYCHAEL RAMBO: Good morning to you.

MARIANNE COMBS: And I understand-- I was surprised to learn-- that you sort of grew up amidst the Black Arts Movement. Tell me a little bit about that.

T. MYCHAEL RAMBO: Yeah, well, what's interesting is that my aunt, Ruth Rambo, and Nikki Giovanni were best friends in life, and they all grew up, were born in Cincinnati, Ohio. So--

MARIANNE COMBS: And that's the writer, Nikki Giovanni?

T. MYCHAEL RAMBO: That's right, and so Aunt Nikki, as I grew up, knowing her and still today, we would sit in my aunt's house in Newark, New Jersey, in her apartment there. And she worked for the parks and recreation board. And little did I know at that time that while we sat in her sunken living room, that there with Roscoe Lee Browne and Nikki Giovanni and the Isley Brothers, all Cincinnati people, and Roscoe good friends with my aunt that I was in the midst of great conversations with Amiri Baraka and my aunt who didn't want to call him Amiri, and him going back and forth about the breakfast program that she was doing with parks and rec. And so I understood at an early age the significance of what it meant for community and what a great value we have with these two men here with us today who can talk about the movement and the community that existed then and then also what the community looks like today.

MARIANNE COMBS: Fabulous. Well, we are going to talk more about the Black Arts Movement-- its history, how it got started, and also look to the future. Joining us this hour are Lou Bellamy, artistic director of Penumbra Theater in Saint Paul. Lou, thanks for joining us again today.

LOU BELLAMY: Well, thank you.

MARIANNE COMBS: It's a pleasure to have you.

LOU BELLAMY: Good to be here.

MARIANNE COMBS: And also joining us by phone is playwright and scholar Paul Carter Harrison. Paul Carter Harrison, welcome to Midmorning.


MARIANNE COMBS: Thank you for joining us. And I'm going to ask you the first question, Paul, to get us started. How exactly did the Black Arts Movement take shape? What inspired it?

PAUL CARTER HARRISON: Well, I just think that the kind of social deprivation was one of the reasons why it got started with Black folks and an opportunity for some to reveal some of the writing that's been going on, writing particularly in the poetry, that was happening during the time. I think it probably started out as a poets' kind of forum, a way to redress the issues in America with regard to Black life. And then, of course, it, I think, was spearheaded by Baraka's, Van Leroy Jones's play, Dutchman. Sort of kicked off the whole notion that, yes, one can even do this on the theater or on stage, kind of redressed these issues. And so I think we're talking about a period in the early '60s where this all sort of became part of a movement.


T. MYCHAEL RAMBO: Well, I think it's-- Paul, thank you so much and welcome to be here with us and our listeners. And I think about the conversation that you bring up, and Paul Douglas-- Paul Turner Ward and his Negro Ensemble Theater. And then when you think about some of the other artists of the time, Barbara Ann Teer and the Black National Theater, Woody King, the federal theater, New Federal, what were some of the other institutions on the theater that began to continue that movement forward?

PAUL CARTER HARRISON: Well, there was the Heritage, the New Heritage Theater. I'm sort of forgetting his name at the moment, but it was a very good theater in Harlem at the time. But it was-- the movement was very active and very alive around music, dance, theater, poetry, particularly. And I think that the theater came after. In other words, after-- by the time you got-- by 1967 when the Negro Ensemble Company was started and the new Lafayette Theater was also around 1966 or so, '67, '68-- when those theaters started, it started a national movement. I mean, people all over the country started looking at the possibilities of having local theater in their communities.

And there was this vast movement that started in Chicago, places like Chicago and Saint Louis, California or San Francisco, the Watts area in California, Los Angeles. I mean, it became-- it was spawned out of this desire to be on stage. The thing that I thought that happened mostly, though, the mid '60s created a desire on the part of students at universities to study theater as a potential occupation. That was quite astonishing.

So here was this vast pool, this resource pool, of talented people-- writers, actors, directors-- that were being trained to work in the theater. And they had a place to go initially for about 10 or 15 years, and after that, it fell off.

MARIANNE COMBS: Hm. Interesting.

PAUL CARTER HARRISON: I asked myself, where are all these wonderful people? What are they doing now? They're probably working in the post office right now.


MARIANNE COMBS: Oh. Well, this is a perfect point to ask Lou Bellamy as artistic director of Penumbra Theater, what's the connection between the Black Arts Movement and Penumbra Theater?

LOU BELLAMY: Well, I was one of those people that Paul was just referring to that began to study theater at the university, and the precepts of that movement resonated with me. And I couldn't put them down. It is the philosophical form that still guides the work that we do at Penumbra Theater.

And I would like to even ask-- whenever I get around Paul, I like to ask him questions--


LOU BELLAMY: --too, because I always find out something. But, Paul, will you talk a little bit about that relationship between politics and the movement, the Black Power Movement--

MARIANNE COMBS: Right, exactly.

LOU BELLAMY: --and the Black Arts Movement and the way they interacted and informed?

PAUL CARTER HARRISON: Well, yeah, I mean, as you know, Larry Neal, a prominent poet at the time, and he had a manifesto which spoke about the relationship of the politic to the art work that we were doing. And actually it still makes sense. I mean, one of the things we forget-- this is not to go past your question-- but one of the things we forget that all art is politics. It sets up a particular kind of way of seeing the world and a way of responding to the world, responding to certain relationships.

And what the Black Arts Movement was doing specifically was trying to say, OK, these are the issues within the political life, social life, that need to be addressed so that it has a consequence, our work has a consequence in bringing consciousness to these issues. In other words, the idea of raising consciousness of these issues was very, very important to the Black Arts Movement.

Now, that doesn't mean that all the plays that were written at that time were great plays.


PAUL CARTER HARRISON: But they were very often conscious-raising efforts, kind of a bit more than agitation propaganda. But it was quite fulfilling in that respect, but I do believe that one of the things that's missing today is a lack of consciousness in the playwriting.


PAUL CARTER HARRISON: That's the extraordinary thing.

LOU BELLAMY: I totally agree with you, and this idea of self-definition, that ground is still being contested as well, whether--


LOU BELLAMY: --who defines, who says what about-- I, for instance, heard Newt Gingrich talk about welfare mothers and so forth, so that's again an attempt to define a population from outside of the population--

T. MYCHAEL RAMBO: Absolutely.

LOU BELLAMY: --which brings-- there's problems with that, of course.

T. MYCHAEL RAMBO: Absolutely. Now, look, as Mister Harrison brought up in talking about what spawned the other and the connection between politics and, of course, community organizations. Penumbra, it's fascinating with its 35th anniversary being this year coming up here, which is a wonderful testament to what you and the theater and this community has done to sustain and keep that concept thriving. How did the theater come out of the end of the movement that was starting to lose steam?

We had the oil crisis, the economic downturn, and a host of other things. And here we are, a theater company, coming up when the Black Arts Movement was really taking a downturn.

LOU BELLAMY: Well, I think that you seize opportunity when it makes itself available. That's when it came available for us. There were a few things going on at the time.

There was a democratic administration, and there were programs inside of the government that were designed to rediscover and help build community. One of them was the CETA program--


LOU BELLAMY: --Concentrated Employment and Training Act. That was the first grant that Penumbra received. In fact, Hallie Q. Brown Community Center received it, and they hired me to implement it. And that was the beginning of Penumbra, so there were a number of things that came together gather to make that possible.

T. MYCHAEL RAMBO: Sure. So Penumbra actually began in many ways, the core of what was very much a Black Arts Movement concept-- or context. I mean, with a center offering its space to arts organizations and looking at how does it take care of its community through fulfilling its heart, its mind, its soul, its body.

LOU BELLAMY: Of course, and one of the primary tenets of the movement is it's refusal to separate the artist from community.

MARIANNE COMBS: Oh, interesting.

LOU BELLAMY: So it is just imperative that this organization remain inside the community, and that isn't anything new. I'm sure Paul can talk about that from W.E.B Du Bois on down.


MARIANNE COMBS: You're listening to Midday today, and we're talking about the legacy of the Black Arts Movement. I'm Marianne Combs, and joining me as my cohost today is arts performer and arts educator T. Mychael Rambo. Our guests this hour are Penumbra Theater artistic director Lou Bellamy, and scholar and playwright Paul Carter Harrison. If you have a question about the Black Arts Movement, its legacy, what its impact is today, have you been affected by the Black Arts Movement in terms of your career, or where do you see its impact in your life, what do you wonder about the future of the Black Arts Movement, give us a call with your comment or question. 1800-242-2828, or you can reach us at 651-227-6000. Or go to and click on Send us a question.

So just for some clarity here, we talked about the fact that arts is political and that there was a Black Power Movement and then the Black Arts Movement, but the Black Arts Movement wasn't necessarily that tied in directly to the Black Power Movement, was it? I mean, it feels like it sort of had its own--

PAUL CARTER HARRISON: It was an offshoot.

MARIANNE COMBS: It was an offshoot, Paul? Yeah, so talk a little bit more about that.

PAUL CARTER HARRISON: At least, I would say, at least psychologically speaking. In other words, the framework from which a lot of work was developed, and that was short-lived, however. I mean, I would say that by the '80s, that had already started to disappear, that rationale that Lou was speaking about.

And then, Lou, I would also ask, at a certain moment, you have to ask the question about this. What does it mean when you say you are serving the community? What are you serving the community? At what point does the theater become a commercial entity or a professional entity where it no longer can serve directly the interests of the community and stops becoming a-- In other words, where most of these theaters had been kind of social agencies or, if not otherwise, community centers, to show some work, show some work by Black authors and directors?

But at a certain moment, you're talking about the survival of these theaters. And when do they become, you might say, your company, companies that can compete, artistically, with any company, Black or white, in the country, in America? At what point do they need to serve other kinds of fiscal interests, self-interests, aesthetic interests of their own which have less to do with the immediate community they're in? And, well, Lou, I must remind you-- do you remember what I said to you-- what I said to the group of people that were [? setting ?] you? When the mayor was [? setting ?] you, I came. You invited me to the dinner.

LOU BELLAMY: Yeah, yeah.

PAUL CARTER HARRISON: And I was at that dinner, and everybody applauded the fact that Lou was in that community-- the mayor and several other people, patrons of Lou's. They were very pleased that he had a theater like that in that particular community, and my question was, well, why is it not Lou's theater right next to the Guthrie? If you love Lou so much, why don't you put his theater--


PAUL CARTER HARRISON: --right next to the Guthrie? Because he's at that level where he needs an audience that can support what he's trying to do aesthetically. And you no longer can serve directly the marginal interest of the community, which is basically entertainment for the community. Do you follow what I'm saying?

LOU BELLAMY: Oh, yeah.


LOU BELLAMY: I think you got your finger on something. As always, you go right to the heart of it. But even with that, I mean, one tries to remember why one began. I think that's why they have mission statements-- because it rather keeps you on point.

I'd like to talk about what is community--


LOU BELLAMY: --what makes that. And I think that what we call community at the time Penumbra began has been sliced, diced, changed, reinvented, redefined.


LOU BELLAMY: And now it's four or five redistricted, gerrymandered, all those kinds of things so that-- a single organization talking about community and serving a community is a difficult task, even to define it.


MARIANNE COMBS: We're talking today about the Black Arts Movement and its legacy. If you'd like to join the conversation, you have a question for either one of our guests, you can give us a call at 1800-242-2828 or 651-227-6000. Go to and click on Send a question if that's the easiest way for you.

And we do have an online comment from Harriet in Minneapolis who writes, BAM poetry, Black Arts Movement poetry. Bob Kaufman, Russell Adkins, June Jordan-- this stuff is world-class, innovative, and intellectually challenging. I'm wondering, Paul Carter Harrison, if you could tell us a little bit more about the artists who sort of define the Black Arts Movement? When you think about the writers coming out of that movement, who do you think of?

PAUL CARTER HARRISON: Well, I mean, that's easy, and it's Baraka being one. Larry Neal being another, the poet, Larry Neal who is deceased now. And I think that certainly it's very interesting. While they perhaps represented the-- were defining the movement, there are people who were not in the movement whose work, I think, was probably a signature of some of the-- aesthetically-- of what the movement was trying to do or wanted to do at a certain moment. The work of Adrienne Kennedy, for example-- that work never got any attention during the Black Arts Movement when I always felt it was probably emblematic of what the movement was trying to do-- find a way of creating work that was clearly distinguished by its aesthetic and at the same time serving some deeper understanding of one's place in, let's say, the American world.

MARIANNE COMBS: And do you see young writers today who continue to implement--



PAUL CARTER HARRISON: Very, very-- I have not seen a single young writer yet in the last 10 years except for maybe Dominic Taylor and his wife, Kelly. But I'm talking about those who have been getting attention, commercial attention. But among those who have been getting real attention, I mean, what is a stick fly? My god, I mean--


PAUL CARTER HARRISON: --that's absolutely absurd.


T. MYCHAEL RAMBO: [LAUGHS] Well, that brings a great question of what is left of the Black Arts Movement, or is it under a different--

PAUL CARTER HARRISON: What's left of it?

T. MYCHAEL RAMBO: Or is it under a different name? Does it still exist?

PAUL CARTER HARRISON: No, no, no, no, no, no. I guess what I'm trying to say, and I guess Lou would spit out, I mean, for example, Lou said something very interesting moment ago. And I think it's very appropriate. He said that his particular community is really a very diverse community. It's cut in a different-- quite a lot of different ways. And it's not what you would-- when you hear the word community, you think, oh, he must be serving a Black community or a community that's right here by his theater when he is really not-- that is not his community.

Basically, I think the theater is much wider. Now, the Black Arts Movement has tried to do things like set up-- I mean, I'm sorry. Black theaters have tried to set up theaters in their communities and tried to have work that's reflective of the interests of the community, and I only know a few that have actually been successful in doing it for any sustained amount of time, one of them being the ETA Theater in Chicago with Abena Joan Brown for 30 years have been serving that community and doing work that really is representative of what that community wants to see, that their board supported, et cetera.

But I think that the Black Arts-- most people have moved away from the Black Arts Movement. They've been trying to simply survive these Black theaters around the country that Lou has seen a lot of them. I've seen a lot of them. They've been trying to survive. They're not that many anymore, by the way. There were at least a hundred of them back in the '60s. There might be about a dozen or less right now in terms of theaters.

In the '60s, '70s-- in the '70s there were about 90-some-odd Black theaters around the country. There are about six or seven right now that I would call functioning theaters. Lou, is that correct?

LOU BELLAMY: I would think so, and, of course, the devil is in the definition about what is professional and what is a season and all that sort of stuff.


LOU BELLAMY: But I think 10, 12 of functioning organizations is pretty close to being correct. I wonder also about-- certainly the final result of the precepts of that movement was revolutionary thought and so forth. Obviously t he direction has changed. The country has changed. It's a different time.

But I still find those things quite useful. Paul, I look at-- I'm going to quote you now. I hate that, when students do that to me--


LOU BELLAMY: --but I'm going to do it. You said the art must be attempted by those who are steeped in our culture, possess a profound understanding of issues, and have the backbone to stand up for truth. I think that that still holds true and is still a beacon for me.

PAUL CARTER HARRISON: No question about it, but the point. In fact, it might be for you-- Lou, I'm going to tell you something. I really believe that your theater could only happen in Minneapolis-Saint Paul--

MARIANNE COMBS: Interesting.

PAUL CARTER HARRISON: --when I think about it.

LOU BELLAMY: I know what you mean, and I think you're right.

MARIANNE COMBS: Now, explain that.

T. MYCHAEL RAMBO: Explain, yeah. Say more.

LOU BELLAMY: Go ahead, Paul.

PAUL CARTER HARRISON: Well, I just think that the circumstance of the Twin Cities, the diversity of the Twin Cities, the kind of progressive thinking about the arts, the access that the community has to different kinds of resources around there, which is not true in most large cities where Black theater is trying to function. I think It's very difficult-- when I've been to Minneapolis-Saint Paul to visit with youth folks, I'm always astonished by how well you're received and the kind of audience that you seem to have cultivated. I go out around the country, and I don't see that happening. And I see people struggling to access resources, but you seem to be able to do there in that region.

I just don't believe, however-- I mean, those precepts are still very, very important. A lot of people have fallen away from that. Let me put it another way. What they have done is dummied down the experience--



PAUL CARTER HARRISON: --of trying to make those precepts-- dumbing it down to making work look like television shows and saying they're doing it in the interests of the community. Well, everyone gets a good laugh and a hoot and a holler, and that's the end of it. There's nothing learned from it, if you follow me.

MARIANNE COMBS: But just to sort of help people understand the impact of the Black Arts Movement, how would life be different today, culturally, if it had not happened?



PAUL CARTER HARRISON: Well, I'll tell you something. You wouldn't have Paul Carter Harrison here on--




PAUL CARTER HARRISON: It would be different. For example, the passion that Lou speaks to in trying to create a theater that still responds to the interests of Black people, that would not have been part of the conversation today, particularly in the climate, the social climate, that the country is in right now. In fact, a lot of people would even at this time, I think people would run away from those kind of concepts, kind of notions. I don't believe that people are that particularly interested, Lou, in pursuing such a lofty kind of, you might say, mission.

T. MYCHAEL RAMBO: Lou, how--

PAUL CARTER HARRISON: They simply want to do some plays. I hear people speak about my plays and my art and things of this. I say, what are they talking about? Where's the art? What is this play? OK, it's a nice entertainment piece, maybe. Just maybe.

In other words, I get-- what you're hearing from me is that a feeling of despair.


PAUL CARTER HARRISON: I'm Looking around, and I don't see much quality experience in Black theater today. Well, Black theater-- people who are producing theater. Because they're not doing Black theater. Black people are on the stage, but they're not doing what I call Black theater. There's no aesthetic--


PAUL CARTER HARRISON: --or foundation or undergirding. They're just doing Black people on the stage. I mean, I ask myself in terms of the quote you put there, Lou, from me, what is the Guthrie doing? Why is the Guthrie doing Amen Corner? I mean, [? you do ?] [? it now. ?] I don't know. Why are they doing The Amen Corner?


PAUL CARTER HARRISON: A great writer but not a great playwright, and that particular play is not great. Why do it?

LOU BELLAMY: Well, it's one that--

PAUL CARTER HARRISON: That's the only thing.


MARIANNE COMBS: We would need somebody from the Guthrie here, I think, to defend that answer.

PAUL CARTER HARRISON: They don't have to defend it. I'm simply saying, in my estimation, it's not one of the plays that I think that if you have the resources, that you should try to go after. It would seem to me that they're-- why only go after August Wilson and James Baldwin and maybe some other Black writer of significant name, at least, and not try to go into that incredible resource pool of writers? Do a Dominic Taylor play, for example. Why not?


PAUL CARTER HARRISON: Do a Dominic Taylor play.

MARIANNE COMBS: We're going to talk about some of the new voices that maybe we should be hearing on stages coming up where we continue our conversation here about the Black Arts Movement and its legacy. You're listening to Midday on Minnesota Public Radio News. I'm Marianne combs. My cohost this hour is performer and arts educator T. Mychael Rambo. Our guests are Penumbra Theater artistic director, Lou Bellamy, and playwright and scholar, Paul Carter Harrison. If you'd like to join the conversation give us a call at 1800-242-2828 or 651-227-6000 or simply go to and click on Send a question.

We'll get back to the conversation in just a moment, but first, time for a news update from the NPR newsroom.

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PHIL PICARDI: From Minnesota Public Radio News, I'm Phil Picardi. After three days of controversy, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure breast cancer charity says it is reversing its decision to cut breast-screening grants to Planned Parenthood. Komen excluded Planned Parenthood from grants because of a government investigation launched in congress at the urging of anti-abortion groups. The breast cancer charity says it will change its grant criteria, so such investigations won't prevent organizations from receiving money.

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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is landing endorsements from Minnesota's house speaker and the majority leader ahead of the Tuesday caucuses. Speaker Kurt Zellers and majority leader Matt Dean headline a list of Romney's legislative backers. Two presidential candidates are scheduled to bring their campaigns to Minnesota this weekend. Ron Paul will spend tomorrow in the state. Rick Santorum will be here on Sunday.

It's cloudy, 32 degrees in Saint Paul. This is Minnesota Public Radio News.

MARIANNE COMBS: And we're back. You're listening to Midday on Minnesota Public Radio News. I'm Marianne Combs. Do stay tuned. Coming up over the noon hour, we're going to find out what Jackie Onassis was really like. Greg Lawrence has a new book out titled Jackie the Editor-- the Literary Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Coming up, we'll hear personal recollections and humorous stories from people who worked closely with the former first lady when she was an editor in the New York publishing world. That's coming up over the noon hour.

This hour we're talking about the legacy of the Black Arts Movement. My cohost this hour is artist, arts educator, performer, vocalist, actor. [LAUGHS] You have a long list too tied to your name.


MARIANNE COMBS: And this is T. Mychael Rambo who's joining me as cohost in studio today on Midday, and our guests this hour, joining us in studio is Lou Bellamy, artistic director of Penumbra Theater in Saint Paul. And joining us by phone is playwright and scholar, Paul Carter Harrison.

Now, before the news break, we got to talking about Amen Corner coming up at the Guthrie. Now, this is actually a Penumbra production that's going on at the Guthrie. So, Lou, could you answer the question, why is Amen Corner taking place at the Guthrie?

LOU BELLAMY: Well, it's for a number of reasons, and I think you have to look at a single play as part of a continuous statement that an organization makes. And one organization has-- I'm talking about Penumbra now-- has a difficult time in taking care of all of its responsibilities in one offering. You have a responsibility for history and reinterpreting it, making it vital, those kinds of things.

So you have to look at it in the context of a whole season. Now, I'll venture to say that The Amen Corner that I'm going to put up at the Guthrie will be different than one that has ever happened before. For instance, I have Hannibal Lokumbe playing the father, so he will actually play during that thing. And there'll be a polemic setup between the secular and nonsecular world and music and so forth that is important to the history and development of jazz and everything else.

So we'll try to reinterpret that, but getting at whether or not it should be a Dominic Taylor play, we did one this season.


LOU BELLAMY: You can't do a whole pay of Dominic--


T. MYCHAEL RAMBO: [LAUGHS] Season of it.

LOU BELLAMY: Although it would be cool because--

T. MYCHAEL RAMBO: He would appreciate that.

LOU BELLAMY: Yeah, he's on it.

MARIANNE COMBS: Yeah, you mentioned that Dominic is actually on staff at Penumbra Theater as well.

PAUL CARTER HARRISON: Can I quickly follow up by saying--


PAUL CARTER HARRISON: --I didn't know that you were directing that production, Lou. And I think what you're describing makes very much sense because I'm sure your interpretation of it would be-- I'm thinking of it being an interpretation by whoever is the artistic director. There they would miss it, I'm sure. But I think you have your hands on something there, so it sounds like it's going to be very interesting.

T. MYCHAEL RAMBO: And then also, Lou, you're also incorporating something which I found fascinating, hearing with Sanford Moore, your musical director, kind of going back to what the Black Arts Movement did which embrace our spiritual community, our religious community, our church community because you're incorporating communities of church members and choirs and that sort of thing. Is that correct?

LOU BELLAMY: We do, without bending the play all out of shape and over-relying on the music.

T. MYCHAEL RAMBO: Certainly.

LOU BELLAMY: And I want to be rather-- I'm intentionally being a little cagey about this.

T. MYCHAEL RAMBO: I understand.

LOU BELLAMY: But James Baldwin's life and history and biography will be represented in this play as well, and I don't-- I haven't seen the play address some of those issues.

T. MYCHAEL RAMBO: Which is very vital and very, very important.


T. MYCHAEL RAMBO: Speaking of vitality, and when we look back-- and I'm going to circle back to some of our earlier conversations-- we'd talk about the Black Arts Movement having these tenets, that cornerstones of the political. We had the Nation of Islam. We had the Black Power movement coming out of Stokely Carmichael, being part of the SCLC and that sort of thing.

At that time, who were the voices in Minnesota? Because I want to attach it to how Penumbra reached back from that, that that of Sankofa thing, and brought in some of those elements. And who was doing that kind of work here during that period?

LOU BELLAMY: Well, I didn't travel until relatively late in my career. I used to read about Paul--


LOU BELLAMY: --and read about Baraka, and, I mean, I never thought I'd meet these people ever, ever. But there were, of course, scholars and community people here, some educated formally and some not. I think of people like Mahmoud El-Kati that is one of my closest advisors, John Wright--

T. MYCHAEL RAMBO: Yeah, certainly.

LOU BELLAMY: --and so forth. There's always been a wealth of people inside of the community that would hold me to task, and I think that's one of the problems or issues that worries me so much today is no one seems to be standing up, holding these organizations to task. I remember doing El Hajj Malik, and I was visited by the [? fruit. ?]


LOU BELLAMY: And those bow ties sat across from me and said, I want to see that script, Brother Bellamy. And I showed it to them, and passed their test. I don't see that sort of concerted responsibility any longer, and frankly I miss it.

T. MYCHAEL RAMBO: And how do we galvanize that? What do we do as a community? Our listeners today, what are we asking them as a community to do to put the feet to the fire?

MARIANNE COMBS: And actually I'd like to tie that in. In addition with asking that question, Paul Carter Harrison, you are going to be speaking-- and this is-- we were inspired to do this hour because Penumbra is hosting a series of talks about the Black Arts Movement. And you will be coming to town on April. And the topic of your conversation is the future of the Black Arts Movement. So tying into T. Mychael Rambo's question, what is the future of the Black Arts Movement?

PAUL CARTER HARRISON: Well, at this moment, it doesn't look very good, and I'm not including the Penumbra situation. I'm just looking across the country in terms of what's happening. And also with the-- when I see works turning up on Broadway like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Black production-- [LAUGHS]

--which is absolutely absurd and silly and trivializes Mister Williams's play, and it just gives some people opportunity to perform and some other producers to make money, things like that. In other words, there's a kind of cynicism about how to use the black body and the black word in the service of generating income-- money or revenue. And that's been happening in the commercial theater more recently, and what's appalling is the number of people who are willing to submit to it who are performers and directors, et cetera.

In the future, what we're looking at is-- here's a-- let me just run this past you, Lou. I want to know your response to it or Mychael's response to it. The fact that the Signature Theater in New York, which is always run on a rather low budget, they have now recently received-- they've got a new building which cost $66 million. From their particular community, they had one of the board of trustees members gave them 25 million. The city gave them 27 million, and the mayor himself gave them three million.

And they were not what you would call a first-rate theater, but they were a good service theater in the sense that they produce-- badly produced, quite frequently-- work that was very cheap to get into. They had a certain price level, so anyone could come in and see these plays at a very-- for $30 or something. So here they are now going into a new building, and they also were doing-- it's been typical, having these new spaces which follows very closely.

They will be able to do work, Black work, that meets their particular subscription base which is what I see happening mostly with the white theaters. Now, I'll just add one little thing here. In response to this, a friend of the theater, a friend of Black theater, a friend of the theater in general, wrote that Ruth Margulies-- Ruth Mayleas who was the head of the NEA back in the '80s, this is exactly what she wanted.

She told Black leaders that the money should no longer go to Black companies, but the money that the NEA puts out there should go to large companies like the Guthrie so that they can produce Black work-- large companies like now the Signature, so they can produce Black work. So they can produce it better than small, Black companies.

So the future looks dim as far as Blacks being able to produce their own work, and the kind of work that's being produced is some work that has to be responsive to the subscription base of those white theaters around the country.

LOU BELLAMY: Yeah. Those are difficult issues.


LOU BELLAMY: And I would agree with you. Now what has been-- I'm the wrong person to talk about building an institution or a building.


LOU BELLAMY: I tried that. [LAUGHS]


LOU BELLAMY: And I don't want to go back there again. It takes too much energy and so forth. But I can answer what we have attempted to do to deal with that, Paul, and that is to find strategic relationships with those organizations and not come in as a stepsister but come in as the authority, the authentic sort of presence in those cases and sort of find ways of dealing with that reality instead of coming up against it. And it's thorny, but we're trying to negotiate a way through that satisfies the needs of our organization and faces that reality.

MARIANNE COMBS: I have an online question from Doug in Minneapolis who asked to talk about August Wilson. My first experience with Penumbra and Black theater was 2008, Gem of the Ocean. I'm hooked. What role did August Wilson play? Was he someone whose work was born out of the Black Arts Movement?

LOU BELLAMY: Well, he subscribed to it. I've heard him oftentimes quote many of the things that Paul and I are talking about, but it's important to note that August Wilson, though wonderful-- I mean, wonderful playwright, a genius and so forth-- is part of a long line of Black intellectual thought. I mean, he just didn't drop off a tree somewhere. He built that on some of these precepts and some of those earlier playwrights that established that ground that he was built on.

But certainly he is the playwright who was embraced by the majority theaters-- still is, and still becomes that voice. And it's a good one, but it is certainly not the only one.

MARIANNE COMBS: I want to get back to T. Mychael's question earlier because I don't feel like we got a good enough answer to that, which is that sort of galvanizing at the individual level. What needs to happen for the future? In a sense if you were to pick up where the Black Arts Movement left off, what needs to happen now? And how do you galvanize individuals about--

LOU BELLAMY: Now, Paul should speak to this--


LOU BELLAMY: --but I will try.


LOU BELLAMY: The tendency is to think that all of these people during the Black Arts Movement were all lockstep, arm-in-arm, marching down the street doing this. This was a bunch of individual artists and folks who recognized a particular need and spoke to it, following their individual truth. And there was a common sort of oppressor or a common thing to push up against.

That has changed somewhat, so you see people coming at these issues from all different points of view. And it's difficult to galvanize a response. Would you speak to that, Paul? Do you agree?

PAUL CARTER HARRISON: Well, I think you're absolutely right. I mean, right now it's hard because there's no solidifying aspect to it. In other words, there's no coalescence around a set of values for the theater. And the people are working independently in their little areas, the areas around the country, and they don't really have a real clear sense of what should be there.

Now what you'll find mostly in what we call Black theater today are plays that are biographies, the biography play, which is taken around to schools, universities, et cetera--


PAUL CARTER HARRISON: --churches, perform in. I mean, there's nothing wrong with that. It's perfectly fine. It's servicing the community as well. But I'm talking about the opportunity for writers. I'm talking about-- I am a writer. Writers and directors. I am a director as well.

Writers and directors don't have opportunity to really grow because the works-- there's a kind of a-- the works are stilted. They're not being-- there's no way to move forward even if you have a grandiose idea. Let me just put it this way. I am not going to be satisfied unless I can see a play-- have an opportunity to have see a Black author's work that's on the scale of War Horse.

Now, if it's not on that scale, I don't want to talk about Black theater because that play is very much inside the tradition of Black theater if you look at it. Now, we're not going to talk about it right now--


PAUL CARTER HARRISON: --but it has a lot of ritual elements that belong inside of Black theater thinking. And so I would say now if we cannot get on that scale, then we're going to be reduced all the time-- little cracker box theater spaces and four-man, four-character plays inside of four walls. No way to look at it beyond the TV screen, thinking about it as a TV play.


PAUL CARTER HARRISON: So we are at a loss right now to get to that scale.

MARIANNE COMBS: We're talking this hour about the Black Arts Movement on Midday I'm. Marianne Combs, and my cohost today is T. Mychael Rambo. We're talking with Lou Bellamy, the artistic director of Penumbra Theater, and joining us by phone is playwright and scholar, Paul Carter Harrison.

Let's go to the phones. We've got Matt on the line in Minneapolis. Matt, welcome to Midday. What's your comment or question?

MATT: Hey, thank you so much for taking my call.


MATT: I'm really honored. I know Lou Bellamy and T. Mychael Rambo from the U of M. I'm a recent graduate of the BA theater arts program there.


MATT: And my question has to do with the play Scottsboro Boys. I saw that at the Guthrie when it was there, and I was really honestly disappointed in what I saw. I mean, I am a young, white man, and in conversations I've had with a number of my peers, I've kind of gotten this attitude, like I don't necessarily have or I couldn't necessarily have a valid opinion on it.

But I guess the themes were all right to me, but their use of blackface towards the end of the show was kind of-- well, it was really disappointing to me, and I would just-- I would really like to hear opinions on that show and kind of how it relates to where the Black theater movement is going.


MATT: And I'll take my answer off the air because I just want to hear these gentlemen talk. So thank you.

MARIANNE COMBS: All right. Thanks, Matt. Lou, do you want to take that one? Do you-- [LAUGHS] Both Lou and T. Mychael are shaking their heads here.

LOU BELLAMY: Not particularly. I mean, I didn't produce it, and so I have no control over it. I can say that it is not a play that I would have produced. I think that there-- I have perhaps a different view of that happening and--

MARIANNE COMBS: Wasn't it written by white playwrights?

LOU BELLAMY: I don't know. I never read the script, and I didn't see the show. Did you see it, Mychael?


LOU BELLAMY: Yeah, well, why don't you talk about it if you--

T. MYCHAEL RAMBO: Well, I think what's important, because what came-- the question came just on the tail end of how do we-- where do we see the Black Arts Movement going and where do we go from here. And not in an effort to really sidestep the question but really importantly to kind of say, how do we create images that speak to us of us by us in a way that has the integrity and the credibility and the authenticity we've spoken of. And I think that through what's happening at Penumbra with the Arts Institute and working with our young people, while we may not see it currently happening, we do have an incredible wealth of voices and bodies of people who have embraced spoken word in a form of poetry that, having taught in the Twin Cities for now 25 years, this last 10 years I've seen students who have not excelled in any other form of academia. But when you put a pencil in front of them and a nice back beat in the room while they are writing, will tell you about their hearts and their souls and about a community that no one ever speaks of and that they see every day.

And if those voices can receive the tutelage and the guidance of the likes of Mister Carter Harrison and Mister Bellamy and all of the others who still hold on to the Black Arts Movement, we can then address issues like the Scottsboro Boys and plays of that sort that may not look like what we would produce or look like the images that we'd like to see about ourselves, and kind of reclaim a movement that has lost steam. I think that Sarah Bellamy's work with theater for social change and activism, the work of Jan Mandell at Central High School, the work of the AVID program, the work that's happening in schools around the Twin Cities and around the country, we're losing an incredible, rich resource that are our most vital seeds to plant that movement back into the hearts of theater, into the hearts of creating publications like Umbra and others from the '60s that really look at poetry and look at magazines and writing forces, that can get people back up on their feet and in the streets because we really have lost-- there's an apathy and a lack of-- an embracing of mediocrity that is appalling and disturbing.

It is disheartening. It's not discouraging for me because I think it's important to keep doing the work. So the young man's question or the gentleman who just graduated from the U is a great one to ask because--

PAUL CARTER HARRISON: It certainly is.

T. MYCHAEL RAMBO: --it spawned my response. But it has three African-American men thinking, well, it's a good question.


T. MYCHAEL RAMBO: And the question is-- the question returns to what we have to do to change that.


PAUL CARTER HARRISON: Yeah, but I mean we had nothing to do with--


PAUL CARTER HARRISON: --producing that.



PAUL CARTER HARRISON: It was a white woman who directed it, was the producing force behind it. But the whole idea that the Scottsboro Boys story is up for the possibilities--


PAUL CARTER HARRISON: --of a musical that's other than a Brechtian type of musical, other than a Brechtian piece, is totally beyond my--

MARIANNE COMBS: Well, and that's what my impression, though, was seeing the show, was that it was actually slightly Brechtian in its take, and that the sort of Bertolt Brecht inspired.

PAUL CARTER HARRISON: But it was a kind of a-- the use of the particular minstrel form, it did not do what a Brecht piece would do. It did not create the kind of alienation effect that you would learn from these situations. This case, it just simply became a kind of entertainment.


PAUL CARTER HARRISON: And I didn't see it, by the way.


PAUL CARTER HARRISON: This is my understanding of it. I've talked to several people who did see it. I wouldn't go near it.

I was invited to come see it at the Guthrie from New York. They wanted me to come and look at it, and I wouldn't go. I said, no, you can have that one.


PAUL CARTER HARRISON: But anyway, I think Michael made a very good case here for, I would say, people who are listening, who might be involved with theater practice and have the hearts and minds of young people, young Black people, people of color in general, to see what they can do to redefine what it is that they're thinking, redefine the work that they are doing, young people who are trying to write for the theater.

Spoken word people have done their job. People who are trying to mount those kinds of stories for stage, what reason are they mounting it? What do they want to reveal? Who's going to produce that work? How would that work look to a general audience? And that's the kind of question I have in mind.

MARIANNE COMBS: I also have a question about another playwright whose work has been shown recently by Pillsbury House Theater, and that's Tarell Alvin McCraney. Any thoughts on his work as sort of a modern voice and--


MARIANNE COMBS: --sort of carrying on the tradition of the Black Arts Movement?

PAUL CARTER HARRISON: Yes and no. It's problematic. I mean, Lou, I don't know. What do you think about the work? Because I have some issues with McCraney. I think he's a good writer, number one.

LOU BELLAMY: Uh-huh. I would agree. I would agree. And we've worked on, in our new play program that Dominic Taylor runs, we've worked on one of those plays. I believe Dominic's worked on it.

There are elements of it that-- and I don't think you're ever going to get the perfect play, but there are elements--


LOU BELLAMY: --of ritual and history and so forth that I find really fetching.

MARIANNE COMBS: Yeah. He directed-- he wrote the play In the Red and Brown Water which was recently staged at the Guthrie Theater but put on by Pillsbury House, just to clarify--


PAUL CARTER HARRISON: --for that particular play in New York, and it's the least interesting of the plays, of those few plays that he had written. And the storytelling is peculiar.


PAUL CARTER HARRISON: I'm not sure what you're supposed to learn from that.


MARIANNE COMBS: You are a harsh critic, Paul Carter Harrison.



PAUL CARTER HARRISON: These are my people I'm talking about. I have to be harsh.


PAUL CARTER HARRISON: I mean, why would I sleep, and say, oh, it's nice. It's cute. It's not cute. The work lacks understanding or true understanding of what they're trying to do, and nobody will tell Mister McCraney that he absolutely is off, the work is off. He's a good writer, though.

LOU BELLAMY: Yes, he is. Yeah.

PAUL CARTER HARRISON: But the play was simple-minded. That was his trouble for him being about it. It was sweet and saccharine.

T. MYCHAEL RAMBO: You bring up some points, and I say this to Lou and to you and to our listeners, how do we create a community of people? We're talking about the Black Arts Movement and what is happening with African-Americans in this country around culture and moving forward--

PAUL CARTER HARRISON: You asked the question, but I don't know if anyone cares.

T. MYCHAEL RAMBO: Yeah, but the thing is, how do we invest in our community an ability to receive critique and criticism and to be able to-- we have become so I-centered and me-focused that it becomes very challenging for someone who's receiving dollars to believe that their work is not good. It becomes very challenging.


T. MYCHAEL RAMBO: And how so we-- what do we do to alter that?


MARIANNE COMBS: And I'm going to hand this question to Lou to answer because we've got just a couple minutes left here. So [INAUDIBLE].

LOU BELLAMY: Well, I mean, I have put my-- besides producing plays, of course. That's how I speak, but we've also begun to invest in young people in a very, very real way. Our summer Institute and all of the work that goes on year-round where we have students engaging in the art, writing things themselves, and then going back to their community and using that art to attack and point out issues inside of their community. That's kind of an empowering, and it makes them not necessarily artists but intelligent consumers of art.



LOU BELLAMY: And that is really important.

MARIANNE COMBS: I think we should end it there. That is just a fabulous note to end on. I really appreciate you all joining us this hour. It's been a fascinating conversation.

T. MYCHAEL RAMBO: [? Ish. ?]

MARIANNE COMBS: Paul Carter Harrison, thanks so much for joining us. I'll look forward to seeing you when you join us here in April.

PAUL CARTER HARRISON: OK. Take good care, Lou.


LOU BELLAMY: Thank you, Paul.

MARIANNE COMBS: Lou Bellamy, thanks so much for being here.

PAUL CARTER HARRISON: Mychael, nice talking to you.

T. MYCHAEL RAMBO: You as well. What a pleasure having you here.

MARIANNE COMBS: T. Mychael Rambo, thanks so much for joining me today is cohost. It was a fabulous hour, in part because you were here.

T. MYCHAEL RAMBO: Thank you. Thank you.

MARIANNE COMBS: Thanks so much. And before we go, I should let you know about the speaker series that's going on, that's been put on by Penumbra Theater and the University of Minnesota. This is a series of talks about the Black Arts Movement and Penumbra Theater going on at the Regis Center for Art. The next one coming up is Thursday, March 1st. The topic is Gender and Sexuality in the Black Arts Movement. The guest is Sydne Mahone, professor of theater at the University of Iowa.

Then on Thursday, April 19th, the topic is Black Cultural Traffic in the Black Arts Movement with guest speaker Harry J. Elam-- I think got that right-- Elam Jr., professor of drama from Stanford University. And then as I mentioned earlier in the hour, Thursday, April 26th, the topic is The Future of the Black Arts Movement, featuring our guest today, Paul Carter Harrison, playwright and scholar.

All of these talks are happening from-- at starting at seven o'clock at the Regis Center for Art on the University of Minnesota campus, and are coproduction with Penumbra Theater. You've been listening to Midday on Minnesota Public Radio news.

NARRATOR: Coverage of K-12 education on Minnesota Public Radio is supported in part by Target, on track to give $1 billion for education by 2015, because learning leads to brighter futures for us all.

MARIANNE COMBS: You're listening to Minnesota Public Radio news, 91.1, KNOW, Minneapolis, Saint Paul. Read breaking news and listen online at You know, on Tuesday, it's Minnesota's turn on the presidential campaign calendar. Be sure to check out our Select a candidate feature online answer-- answer a few questions about major issues and find out which candidate aligns best with your ideas. Go to and click on Select a candidate. Current conditions in the--


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