Penumbra summer program teaches activism along with the arts

Drama plays out in practice
St. Paul's Penumbra Theatre is known for being one of the premiere African-American theaters in the country. However, it's summer program for teenagers is not widely known. The theater says it is preparing its students for lives as "artist-activists." Pictured here are students: Margaret-Ann Thompson, Alaysia Duncan, Isis Giles-Jordan and Viola Onikoro-Arkell.
Courtesy of Allen Weeks | Penumbra Theatre Co.

It used to be that when he was bored, Gebriel Khadar would go looking for trouble. In order to keep him busy, his mother enrolled him and his brother in Penumbra Theatre's Summer Institute.

"My mom thought that I needed something to do with my brother so that we could connect more," said Khadar, now 16 and in his third and final year of the summer program. "And it turns out Penumbra helped me connect to a lot more than just my brother."

St. Paul's Penumbra Theatre is known for being one of the premiere African-American theaters in the country. Less well known is its summer youth program, which teaches teenagers not just about acting and directing but about race, class and other social justice issues.

"This is a completely different kind of education," Khadar said. "I'm a lot more mature, socially aware. I want everyone that I love to go through Penumbra — it's amazing."

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The Summer Institute began more than 20 years ago, but Penumbra co-artistic director Sarah Bellamy relaunched the program in 2006 with a new focus on social justice and activism. The theater says it is preparing its students for lives as "artist-activists."

"I think the end result of students going through this program is deeper critical consciousness, civic engagement, tremendous empathy and passion for creating social change inside their communities," she said.

An African-based movement class
Penumbra Theatre's Summer Institute began more than 20 years ago. The program was relaunched in 2006 with a new focus on social justice ans activism. Here, intern Am'Ber Montgomery, second from left, worked with students Saharla Vetsch, far left, Viola Onikoro-Arkell, second from right, and Margaret-Ann Thompson, far right, during an African-based movement class.
Courtesy of Allen Weeks | Penumbra Theatre Co.

The Summer Institute accepts youth ages 12 to 19. More than half the student body is African-American. Students take classes in acting, directing, movement, writing and stage managing — and at the same time engage in conversations on race, gender, sexuality and ability.

First-year students focus on learning about their place in the world, and how to bring their whole selves to the stage. Second-year students explore social justice issues. Third-year students get internships with local nonprofits working on the front lines of those issues. And, said Summer Institute Director H. Adam Harris, they're all taught by high-caliber theater professionals from around the Twin Cities.

"The goal of the program is not necessarily that they become congressmen, that they go to the White House or become presidents, but that they intervene in oppression wherever they see it — in the car with Mom and Dad, in a classroom, in a boardroom," said Harris. "My teacher in Detroit used to say you have to play by the rules until you get into a place where you can change them."

Putting on such an intensive summer program is not cheap. Harris said it costs approximately $2,500 per student, but in order to make the program accessible, Penumbra charges only $400 and also offers scholarships. Students receive bus passes, lunches and snacks. Harris said that while the institute is blessed with some generous funders, it's still scraping by.

One of the program's funders is Xcel Energy. Grants Manager Lauren Olson said it's rare to find a program that offers three years of education and leadership training.

Student Andre Holmes on break
Andre Holmes, a participant in the Penumbra Theatre's Summer Institute, took a break between classes. Participants are provided bus passes, lunches and snacks.
Courtesy of Allen Weeks | Penumbra Theatre Co.

"Challenging ideas and building a sense of community is something that we really need at every age group and especially with teens that are going to be our leaders of tomorrow," she said. "So we just like being part of something that has a proven track record and proven success." And the students seem to like it even more.

"It's so amazing!" said Kaaha Kaahiye, 15. "I love Summer Institute so much it's not even OK."

Kaahiye came to the Institute after a tough year of being bullied in school. Above and beyond the theater skills, she said, she's learned how to take care of herself.

"I learned by being around all of these nurturing, caring, compassionate people how to love myself and accept myself with all the flaws that I have and how beautiful and amazing I am — Penumbra helped me out a lot with that," she said. "I think I've learned my potential and where I can go."

Kaahiye's class is working on creating scenes about biracial identity, suicide and the fear that comes with being a young black man in America. The institute culminates with public performances on the Penumbra Theatre stage over the next couple of weekends. And then 45 "artist-activists" will go out into the world, armed with what they've learned.