Listen: AUDIO:Penumbra Plan (Kerr)

MPR’s Euan Kerr reports on announcement of Sarah Bellamy as new artistic director at Penumbra Theatre and its five-year plan in stabilizing organization after financial struggle.

After almost collapsing a little more than a year ago, Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, the nation's largest African-American theater, has announced a leadership transition. It's also unveiled an aggressive management plan for the future.


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EUAN KERR: Penumbra founder and artistic Director Lou Bellamy told the crowd that packed the theater for the announcement that the evening was going to be one of looking back and forward. He recalled when the company put on its first productions in 1976, it was an uphill struggle.

LOU BELLAMY: In the face of negative and erroneous depictions of African-American life, which was the norm in national, regional, and local theaters, we told stories of truth and gave honest depictions of Black life.

EUAN KERR: Bellamy talked of the successes over the years of the numbers of Black actors trained at Penumbra who have gone on to careers elsewhere, regionally and nationally. But he also talked of the hard times, like what he called the near fatal fiscal challenge of late 2012 when the theater had to go dark for some months. It came back after a wave of contributions from around the country. The crisis also caused the company to implement a five-year plan for growth and sustainability. Bellamy now sees a bright and stable future for Penumbra.

LOU BELLAMY: With a rock-hard confidence that Penumbra's horizons are wider and its leadership stronger than it has ever been, which is why Penumbra's board of directors and I unanimously approve the appointment of Sarah Bellamy as my successor.


EUAN KERR: The leadership transition wasn't a huge surprise. Sarah Bellamy has been associate artistic director at Penumbra for some years and is recognized for developing the theater's successful outreach program. As Lou Bellamy's daughter, she grew up at Penumbra. With the transition announcement, she becomes co-artistic director with her father. And then in 2017, during Penumbra's 40th season, Lou will retire and she will become artistic director. The younger Bellamy says it's her intention to meet the challenges of a changing world with the same commitment to social justice as Penumbra's founders.

SARAH BELLAMY: Penumbra theater is held to a high standard. Our ethics and our art are one. We don't do theater to entertain though, it is always entertaining. We do theater to practice better ways of being in the world.

EUAN KERR: Sarah Bellamy bluntly criticized other theaters in the area for mishandling portrayals of race and alienating communities of color.

SARAH BELLAMY: Penumbra is bound by a social justice imperative that is central to our mission. It's in our very bones. I will not lose sight of responsibility, and I will not allow it to be confused with a facsimile that takes the music but not the words, that takes the people but not their power, that takes the stories but not the soul. There is a lot of that out there, and some audiences don't know the difference.

EUAN KERR: She says theaters of color are still vital to their audiences, and she pledged an aggressive outreach effort that is also part of Penumbra's five-year plan developed with the help of Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He praised Penumbra for its plan to ramp up marketing to develop new audiences and also to raise more money and expand its board to make the organization more stable.

He pointed out that while Penumbra is the largest African-American theater company in the country, its budget is only $2 million. He says like other African-American arts organizations, Penumbra faces a challenge when it comes to donations.

MICHAEL KAISER: The average mainstream white organization gets 60% of its contributions from individuals. And the average African-American organization gets 6% of its funding from individuals.

EUAN KERR: Kaiser says he is confident, however, that Penumbra's plan is strong, and under the leadership of Sarah Bellamy, the company will continue to be a leader nationwide. Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio News.


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