After almost collapsing a little more than a year ago, Penumbra Theater 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.
The biggest change: Sarah Bellamy will take over from her father Lou, who founded the company almost 40 years ago.
Lou Bellamy told the crowd that packed the theater Monday night 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.
"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," he said.
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, including what he called the near fatal fiscal challenge of late 2012, during which time the theater had to go dark for a number of months, and coming back after a wave of contributions from around the country.
“Penumbra's horizons are wider, and its leadership stronger than it has ever been.”Lou Bellamy
The crisis prompted the company to put a five-year plan into place for growth and sustainability, and Bellamy now sees a bright and stable future for Penumbra.
"Penumbra's horizons are wider, and its leadership stronger than it has ever been," Lou Bellamy said. "Which is why Penumbra's board of directors and I unanimously approve the appointment of Sarah Bellamy as my successor."
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 theaters successful outreach program.
As Lou Bellamy's daughter, Sarah 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.
"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," she said. "We do theater to practice better ways of being in the world."
Sarah Bellamy also bluntly criticized other theaters in the area for mishandling portrayals of race, and alienating communities of color.
“We do theater to practice better ways of being in the world.”Sarah Bellamy
"Penumbra is bound by a social justice imperative -- it's in our very bones," she said. "I will not lose sight of that 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."
She said theaters of color are still vital to their audiences, and she pledged an aggressive outreach effort. That's also part of Penumbra's five-year plan, which was developed with the help of Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Kaiser 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.
"The average mainstream white organization gets 60 percent of its donations from individuals," he said. "And the average African-American organization get 6 percent of its funding from individuals.
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.