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Penumbra bounces back with 'Spunk'

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Austene Van, T. Mychael Rambo
Austene Van and T. Mychael Rambo rehearse for "Spunk" at Penumbra Theatre. The cast and crew of "Spunk" say they hope the production will be a thank you to the people who saved the company from oblivion, and a reminder of what was almost lost.
Image courtesy Penumbra Theatre/Rich Ryan

Last year, Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul seemed to be in a financial freefall, appearing as though it may have played its last show.

After an outpouring of public support, including 1,400 donations, the lauded African American company is back in business. The mood at Penumbra is reflected in the play opening this week: "Spunk."

There is excitement in the room as the cast of "Spunk" readies for rehearsal. There's something else, too --  determination, and focus on making this show good. Really good.

"I think the rehearsal process is charged with this new energy," said Penumbra veteran Austene Van.

Cast members have a sense of how close they came to losing the company, she said.

"It kind of breaks you down, which is a good place to be because then you can grow some more, you know" Van said. "You want to be better and better, every day, every day, every day."

Van sits with another Penumbra veteran, T. Mychael Rambo. For him, "Spunk" isn't a make or break show, but one that makes a statement.

"We come to this piece saying 'Look at who we are. See our talents, see our incredible gifts. And see why sharing depth and the richness of African American theater is so important and so vital.'"

"We come to this piece saying 'Look at who we are. See our talents, see our incredible gifts. And see why sharing depth and the richness of African American theater is so important and so vital,'" Rambo said.  

There are reasons why Penumbra is playing "Spunk" right now. Director Patdro Harris describes Spunk as "a piece about love and hope and survival, through the eyes of African American people and the blues."

George C. Wolfe's 1989 play is based on three stories collected by Zora Neale Hurston. The stories may be folklore but they carry hard truths of real life. One story is about a washerwoman and her philandering husband; the second is about three fast-talking hucksters, eager to prey on a girl they meet on the street. The third is about a conman with his eye on a newlywed bride.

Carlton Leake, music director for "Spunk," praises the play's well-rounded characters in comparison to many modern depictions of African American life.

"A lot of our stories, we are laughing at ourselves and not really having great characters," Leake said. "We are just laughing at some things and some of the, I hate to say the word, but stupidity of what we do."

Many people know Hurston as the author of the book, "Their Eyes Were Watching God." But Hurston was an anthropologist by training. During the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, she was part of the effort to gather African American stories and capture the language in which they were told before they disappeared. Penumbra's Education Director Sarah Bellamy said Hurston saw theater as a tool to change the understanding of the black image.

"But she was really, really adamant about authentic, authentic African American voices, about authenticity," Bellamy said.

Patdro Harris
Patdro Harris is director and choreographer of "Spunk" at Penumbra Theatre.
Photo courtesy of Penumbra Theatre/Rich Ryan

This proved to be challenging at the time because some of the white patrons funding Hurston's work, and indeed some African Americans, saw little value in preserving what they considered the culture of the uneducated. But Bellamy says Hurston and her colleagues heard and valued the music and the spirit in the stories and pushed ahead.

"Our engagement of the play "Spunk" becomes not just about the folklore but about the mission of these artists and what they were trying to do," Bellamy said.

Penumbra's production of "Spunk" is all-star. In addition to Van and Rambo, the cast includes Jevetta Steele and Dennis Spears. For the performers, the public outpouring of support has been exhilarating and humbling. But now director Harris said it is time to shine again.

"I've been telling the company that it's not only a piece going up, it's a new start. The bridge to your next blessing is being grateful."

Spunk runs at Penumbra Theatre through April 7.