LOU BELLAMY: Art offers us a wonderful opportunity to be human, to be human with the guards pulled down.
LOU: Human beings inside of a theatre are rather like inside of a church. Theatre knows that. Penumbra got a grant from the federal government of $150,000. They hired me to administer the grant Penumbra, because of being in Minnesota, where our state population is about five percent African American, um, so we have a different audience demographic than many black theaters around the country. There was a, a truth or a wholeness about the African American experience that was not being shared on local stages. One of the objectives was to ensure that African Americans and other people of color were woven into the fabric of American society. It’s important for me to remain cognizant and steadfast about who I’m doing this theatre for, I want everyone to consume it, I want everyone to appreciate the variety and the beauty of this experience, but I’m directing it for black people.
LOU: I don’t have time to do plays. I don’t want to play. I want to do work that has purpose and worth and makes the world a better place.
LOU: As I travel around the country, I see black communities in terrible, terrible disarray. All you have to do is look for public transportation, get on it where you see black people, and ride that bus and watch the poverty level rise in any major city you go to. They’re starving. They’re hurting. They don’t have the ability to reach anywhere near beyond their grasp that guides what we do, theatre is my citizenship. It’s my way to change the world. It’s the way I engage the world. It’s the way that I move my community.
LOU: I grew up, 200 yards from where we are right now. So, I know this community and I, I’ve lived it and I understand it. I was raised by strong women - these women were no joke, played a, a large part in the forming of my personality. The black arts movement didn’t allow many female voices to be heard and I’m thrilled that I got my mother and my grandmother and those ladies wouldn’t have it any other way – I had to tell those stories, so we came on early onto that - doing Adrienne Kennedy and so forth. One of the few black theaters that do that ladies work.
LOU: I’m shaped by the literature that I was lucky enough to direct and perform. Those
words shaped me. And when I began to find the power in the strength of that culture and meld it within an informed aesthetic that allowed me to deal with social and civil rights issues, I began to see the power in that work and that’s the key. You gotta know why you’re here. You’ve got to have an aesthetic that guides you. You’ve got to have something to say. And you develop that by study. There has been black intellectual thought before and after slavery. I come from and am standing on a legacy that can go on for forever. Amiri Barka , Langston Hughes, Loraine Hansberry, Alice Childress. We have all this rich heritage to pull from and -but we need these institutions to pull it out and let them know – that they belong to us. Putting August Wilson on the side of your theatre does nothing if that culture isn’t represented inside the stage.
LOU: Unless these black, uh, Asian, Chicano theaters are given the support - and it is about money. Let’s just say it flat out. Everybody says, “Don’t throw money at it.” Well, they throw money at everything else. Let’s throw some money this way. They need to have the financial resources to follow their heart and intellectual ambition. Right now, I know what to do, but I don’t have the, the wherewithal to do it. I see brilliant playwrights coming out of Yale and Harvard and places and going into The Goodman, Alliance, Arena, I’m not saying that these aren’t valuable institutions, but those artists are often lost inside of the programs. What gives them their power and strength is weeded out.
LOU: What I see when I often see African Americans represented on - in major regional
institutions is the play, the experience, the actor, the director is treated as an ambassador of the community. They’re separate from their community. They are an exception, an intelligent, talented, wonderful exception, perhaps, but an exception. What you see inside of the theatre that I want to do is theatre created in and of, near, about the community. They engulf it. And often, you will see someone seeing a black actor in a play and think that’s a black play. Well, where is the rest of the community? We don’t come into this world alone. We need someone to bring us into it. And I think that art needs that as well. It is not separate from the people that it’s about or who created it.
LOU: And so, there needs to be places where we’re capable, as a black community, of fostering this work, of supporting it from, as they say, from cradle to grave. We got to be able to support a playwright with an idea, to bring an actor in, uh, to, to educate people as good theatre consumers, to not perpetuate these myths and stereotypes. It’s a big job, but it has to be done, in my view, inside of community.
LOU: I’m a student of history, and W.E.B DuBois talked about art being of, by, for, and most importantly, near, near the people. And I’ve been, I think, I’ve tried to be very careful that I stay near the people because those are my checks and balances. That’s why I do the art. When I direct a play, it’s directed as though there are no one but African Americans in the house, because I’m directing the play for them. That doesn’t say that it doesn’t have worth and applicability to everyone else. But the Euro-centric measuring stick that was used to measure our art, our society, um, ourselves, was not made for us. August Wilson said it in his Ground on Which I Stand, very clearly, and I can just restate it, that there is a vibrant black theatre community, they simply are not funded.
LOU: So at Penumbra we elected to have a place, where those other stories were told, not euphemistically, uh, honestly. I mean, we criticize - artists inside of a community don’t sit quietly. They’re a pain in the ass. They’re always moving the waters and causing waves and asking hard questions. And you know, they’re just difficult to be around, but they make a community better. I’m at a place in my career, where I have - I’ve mastered the craft. I’ve got all the elements, and I know how to put them together. Now, I am really concerned that the next generation be able to do that. And, we’ve taken, uh, thoughtful steps toward that. We’ve given our archives to, uh, uh, the Archie Givens Rare Book Collection, a, black collection of literature.
CECILY MARCUS: Lou Bellamy himself has said that it’s possible that Penumbra’s plays may have a bigger impact in our archives than they did even when they were produced. There are about 87 boxes to date in Penumbra’s Archives everything from annotated script to photos to press releases, press clippings, programs, video. The only copy of Lou Bellamy’s notes on August Wilson’s Fences scripts are here. If we don’t save the history of African American theatre. uhm..we’re just adding to a list of silences and question marks that we’ll never be able to answer.
LOU: One of the things that I am happy about my daughter taking over Penumbra and going to run it is that I took this as far as I could take it and I am just thrilled that she feels the responsibility to solider on with it, so she’s bringing new voices to this work and it’s about the combination of both and that I’m just thrilled about. And I am also very, very proud of her.
SARAH BELLAMY( Lou Bellamy’s daughter Co-Artistic Director, Penumbra): It was a tremendously emotional experience to have my father welcome me in as the co-artistic director and share his title with me, I mean that’s a title that’s sort of haloed I grew up at Penumbra Theatre, I was raised by the company of artists I feel deeply lucky to have my father still with me and we’re walking in kind of locked step for a number of years, I had to do a lot work to not just be Lou’s daughter - for a long time. I deserve this. I worked hard. I’ve earned it. And his recognition meant the world. Everyone who was really successful and talented left the black community, and my father chose to stay. And so I feel a great responsibility as the incoming leader to demonstrate my commitment to that community and the institution that he built.
LOU: I hear her talk now and hear those words coming out of her and it’s just – she’s coming full circle.
SARAH: uhm, the most profound struggle that I have seen my father grapple with was quite recently. Penumbra hit a financial wall and it looked very much like the theatre would close. The conversation was do we let it go? Do we close the doors? And it was hard to go to work everyday it felt like someone had died. And I wasn’t sure we were going to make it through, and he was really fatigued. And I thought – he’s gonna let it go. But he didn’t. And part of that is because I was there with him and because he had an enormous trust in our managing director Chris Widdess, and we all kind of looked at each other and said, “Are we going to do this?” and we said “Yeah...”
SARAH: But watching my dad go through that in this point in his career was so frustrating for me. I just thought, boy, if anything you should be getting awards and having a golden parachute and that doesn’t happen for artists. They just kind of quietly move along, uh, and I wish our field took better care of the elder artists. I don’t know how my father would feel about being called an elder artist at this time – but I think he is one, you know?
LOU: The issues of equity and full participation in the American experiment are not solved or finished. We’re still working. We’re still becoming. That’s one of the things that funding institutions need to begin to take into account that Penumbra though having trouble balancing its books for lots of the years it’s been here, survived and we’re still here 40 years later and we won’t die.
SARAH: I believe so deeply in the mission of Penumbra Theatre, I have seen its impact in the field, not just in Minnesota but field wide um, and I have seen how it can be a home for other artists.
LOU: Now, it looks like I’m doing it alone, but I’m not. I’ve got a daughter who’s really well informed, a wife that is supporting me, a mother who is no longer here. These people said, “You get up and you get back out there and you” - I’d come home crying. I mean, this, this art will break your heart. And my wife would tell me, “Now, you get up and you go back out there.”I’ve got all these people, all this thinking, all this smart stuff that I rely on.
LOU: I’ve fought so hard, so many battles that I don’t know whether I’ve won, but I’ve sure stood up for them. But I’ve found out that you only have to get up one more time. That’s all you have to do. You just keep getting up one more time. And gradually, other people won’t.