Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Penumbra Theater

Laurel Schwartz

“Theater is the way I express my citizenship. It’s who I am.” – Lou Bellamy

Over break, I watched a segment on Rock Center about Minnesotan director, Lou Bellamy. Mr. Bellamy is the founder of Penumbra Theater, the largest African American theater in the country. Mr. Bellamy is a very large figure in the Theater world in Minnesota, but he is an unsung hero of sorts outside of the Midwest. The first time I watched the segment, I was ecstatic to see him receiving national recognition in the mass media. Even though I grew up with him as a prominent public figure in my life, it seems as though each new interview I watch and each new play I go see, I learn more and more about him. He literally has an unlimited supply of stories.
Penumbra Theater immediately came to mind when trying to find something to write a blog post about. After class on Tuesday, I went back and rewatched the segment. I quickly saw a connection between Mr. Bellamy and Tiya Miles. In class, we saw an interview where Miles explained that her desire to write a book about Afro-Cherokee families stemmed from her own desire to learn and educate others about her own family history. Mr. Bellamy explains similar motives for creating Penumbra Theater. Bellamy comments on his trip to a southern plantation saying, “I began to look at things and get a little angry about all these things being slave-made and this great amount of wealth that was a mast because of it. And, an old black lady told me to ‘just take the good.’ She said, ‘Just let it go. All you’re hurting is yourself, son. Come on let it go.’” Here, Bellamy’s desire to educate came from learning about his past and trying to discover how to change the future. Ultimately, he found a catalyst for change through theater.
One theme that stuck me in the readings for this unit was the idea that telling and finding stories helps up discover things about our past. We saw how architecture provided insight into family life, how paintings showed the political opinion of the country, and how family history helps define individuals. Lou Bellamy seeks to do the same thing with his theater. Through theater, he has provided a voice for hundreds of actors, playwrights and directors who may not otherwise have their voices heard. Through theater, he can tell stories much like Miles can tell stories through a book.
Being someone who has grown up in theater, both on and off stage, I have always felt a special connection to what theater as an art form is able to accomplish. Mr. Bellamy brings up the fact that the audience is forced to step into the world of the play. The plays are directed as if the audience is entirely black, so if an audience member is not familiar with the culture they are forced to BECOME familiar with it through the play. I feel like theater, Penumbra especially, is a great way to explore stories that often go untold.

Here is the link to the clip:


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  2. As a side-note, relating this to the discussion we had today, I applied for an internship at Penumbra for this coming summer and one of the essay questions was, "What is the relationship between art and culture?" - Laurel