Penumbra celebrates 40 years

African-American stories have always taken center stage at this theater

In 2014, Penumbra staged The Ballad of Emmett Till, a play based on the 1955 brutal murder of a 14-year-old boy in Mississippi who was accused of flirting with a white woman. Photo courtesy of Penumbra Theatre Company / Allen Weeks
In 2014, Penumbra staged The Ballad of Emmett Till, a play based on the 1955 brutal murder of a 14-year-old boy in Mississippi who was accused of flirting with a white woman. Photo courtesy of Penumbra Theatre Company / Allen Weeks

This year St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre Company celebrates its 40th anniversary. For four decades, the theater has garnered local and national attention for its dedication to creating art grounded in the African-American experience.

Penumbra is one of only a few theaters created during the Black Arts Movement of the sixties and seventies that still exists today. The company first got its start in 1976 at the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center when the organization was awarded a grant to develop cultural arts programming.

Lou Bellamy was hired as Hallie Q. Brown’s cultural arts director, and he worked to create a theater company that would grant more opportunities for black artists.

“They were not getting work on other stages, and when they were, it was quite limited and often stereotypical,” Sarah Bellamy, Penumbra artistic director, said in Peg Guilfoyle’s 2015 book, Offstage Voices: Life in Twin Cities Theater.

Starting out

Penumbra’s first productions were two educational children’s plays, Little Nell and The Hairy Falsetto. In 1977, the theater acquired the name Penumbra and staged its first full-length season, which began with Eden by Steve Carter, an exploration of the relationships between African-Americans and black Caribbean immigrants in New York.

Star Tribune critic Peter Vaughan wrote, “If Eden is an indication of things to come, this newest venture on the Twin Cities theater scene deserves a long existence.”

Eden also drew in one of Penumbra’s most influential collaborators — playwright August Wilson. While visiting St. Paul, Wilson, then a poet, attended Eden half a dozen times.

A few years later, when Wilson reworked a series of his poems into a play, Penumbra hosted his first professional play, the musical satire, Black Bart and the Sacred Hills, in 1982.

It was “a fairly unwieldy and somewhat unsuccessful production. It had a 26-person cast and included 14 songs and the liberal use of a strobe light,” according to Macelle Mahala’s 2013 book, Penumbra: The Premier Stage for African American Drama.

Winning two Pulitzers

That was, however, only the beginning for Wilson at the theater.

In 1984, Penumbra and Wilson launched the world premiere of his play, Jitney. A few years later, in 1987, Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Fences — and another in 1990 for The Piano Lesson. Wilson remained an advocate for Penumbra through his life, and his work has continued to have a home at Penumbra over the years.

By 1990, Penumbra had established itself as a separate 501c3 organization from the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center with a $500,000 operating budget.

Over the years, its seasons have fostered the work of numerous black playwrights, such as Carlyle Brown and Robbie McCauley, and explored issues from the African-American middle class to minstrel shows in a wide range of performances.

Black Nativity; 1989

One Penumbra staple is Black Nativity by Langston Hughes, which has been staged nearly every year since 1987 in various historical eras, such as the Reconstruction, biblical times and even contemporary St. Paul.

In 2000, Penumbra received national recognition when it won the Jujamcyn Award for its work developing artistic talent. The theater also began co-producing with the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, starting with Wilson’s Fences in 1997 as well as productions such as A Raisin in the Sun, The Amen Corner and The Mountaintop.

Ups and downs over the years

Penumbra hasn’t been without its struggles during 40 years of operation.

In September 2012, it was forced to cancel its 2012–2013 season, lay off staff and suspend programming after a financial shortfall.

But through the support of the community, the theater was able to raise $359,000 to stage one production in spring 2013, Spunk: Three Tales by Zora Neale Hurston.

Penumbra has since bounced back and has continued to stage relevant, poignant works such as 2014’s The Ballad of Emmett Till, the true story of a 1955 lynching, which drew obvious parallels to the 2012 shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida.

Penumbra held post-play discussions after performances as part of the theater’s Season of Hope.

In 40 years, Penumbra has premiered 34 shows by black artists and fostered the careers of countless artists of color.

As of 2017, Penumbra still calls Hallie Q. Brown Community Center home, and its 2016–2017 season includes Wilson’s Black Light: A Soulful Embrace of Love and Life, featuring diva songstress Jomama Jones, opening this month.

In January 2017, Sarah Bellamy succeeded her father Lou Bellamy as artistic director, launching a new chapter for Penumbra.

Lauren Peck is a media relations and social media associate for the Minnesota Historical Society.

Black Light: A Soulful Embrace of Love and Life

Attend a show

Black Light: A Soulful Embrace of Love and Life will feature renowned diva songstress Jomama Jones (above) at the Penumbra Theatre Company in St. Paul on select nights Feb. 2–12. Tickets cost $20 for ages 62 and older.

See an exhibit

The Minnesota History Center will present the exhibit Penumbra at 40: Art, Race and a Nation on Stage Feb. 18 through July 30.

Visitors can explore the founding and journey of the country’s largest and preeminent African-American theater through stories, original props, costumes, scripts and more.

The exhibit was organized in partnership with Penumbra, the Givens Collection of African American Literature at the University of Minnesota Libraries and Umbra: Search African American History. Learn more at