Black history comes alive on a stage, and in a database

Penumbra's 2014 production of The Ballad of Emmett Till
From left, Sha' Cage, T. Mychael Rambo, Mikell Sapp, Darrick Mosley, H. Adam Harris in Penumbra's 2014 production of "The Ballad of Emmett Till" by Ifa Bayeza, 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.
Allen Weeks | Courtesy Penumbra Theatre

Despite the temptations of an unseasonably warm February day, groups of boy scouts, girl scouts, families and teens made their way last weekend through the Minnesota History Center's exhibition, "Penumbra Theatre at 40."

They examined the theater set for August Wilson's play "Fences," watched clips of the holiday show "Black Nativity" over the years, and learned about important symbols and ideas in African-American culture.

The exhibition celebrates the nationally renowned African-American theater company based in St. Paul. It coincides with the public launch of Umbra, a new online search engine for African-American history, inspired by Penumbra Theatre.

Minnesota History Center senior exhibit developer Kate Roberts pointed out the many books in the exhibition, including a Frederick Douglass autobiography from 1845.

The Hallie Q. Brown Center's children’s production of Snow White in 1948.
The Hallie Q. Brown Community Center's children's production of Snow White in 1948. As a community center formed by the Twin Cities Urban League in 1929, Hallie Q. Brown provided social services for African Americans.
Minnesota Historical Society/Minnesota Historical Society

"It's really important that people understand that Penumbra's work fits in a long, long trajectory of African-American literature, theater and thought," Roberts said. "And the way I've come to think about it is, Penumbra embraces this trajectory but also extends it through its work."

Lou Bellamy created Penumbra Theatre in 1976 as a platform for African-American voices and talent. Over the past four decades the theater has helped launch the careers of many accomplished playwrights, including August Wilson, and has earned national accolades for its artistic rigor.

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And it's done all of this from its relatively modest home in the Martin Luther King Center. Lou Bellamy said that seeing the company's work gathered together in one show is gratifying, and a bit overwhelming.

"You know, we put up a play, the reviews come out, the people come, it's over, you clean off the set, build another one. And you begin to see that this has been a 40-year conversation with the community about issues that are affecting the community at the time," he said.

At the start of this year, Lou Bellamy's daughter Sarah took over as artistic director. She's building on what he founded, adding panel discussions, film screenings and other ways for audiences to engage with the material.

"When you crack open the space that a play does inside a heart, and you've got someone really feeling something, how do you then take that feeling and motivate them to do something good for their community?" she asked. "And that is the question that is driving all of the programming that we're creating here at Penumbra."

A portion of the set from Penumbra’s 2016 production of Fences
A portion of the set from Penumbra's 2016 production of "Fences" is on display in the exhibit.
Minnesota Historical Society

Increasingly, Penumbra's legacy is spreading into the wider community.

Cecily Marcus, curator of the Givens Collection of African American Literature at the University of Minnesota Libraries, was at the exhibit to introduce visitors to Umbra. "This is a treasure trove for anyone who's interested in black history, or American history," she said.

Marcus explained that the new search engine was inspired by Penumbra Theatre, when Lou Bellamy made a gift of the company's archives to the University of Minnesota: annotated scripts, playbills, and costume and set designs.

"There are hundreds and hundreds of theaters that came out of the Black Arts Movement, like Penumbra did," she said. "Only a few still exist. ... And to have an archive that will be a testament to what they've done, where all these other theaters have closed and we don't know when they closed, we don't know what happened to them, their records have been scattered and lost to history."

Umbrasearch.org brings together more than 500,000 digitized materials from more than 1,000 libraries and archives across the country. They are items unlikely to come up in a Google search, and offer a window onto the wealth of African-American culture. Users can peruse sections dedicated to the Underground Railroad or the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. They can look up "African-American firsts" — the first African-American voter, the first African-American police officer.

Marcus admitted that half a million objects really isn't that much material. "So this is a way to bring together what has been digitized and bring some coherence and context to it, but also to say, 'Where's the rest of it? What's missing? What else is out there? What can we digitize next?'"

The Historical Society’s exhibit includes set pieces, and clips.
The exhibition includes set pieces, as well as clips from various productions over the years, including "Black Nativity," written by Langston Hughes and first performed in 1961.
Minnesota Historical Society

That's where University of Minnesota Professor Catherine Squires comes in. She's enlisted a group of students at Gordon Parks High School to make more material available for Umbra search. This spring they're working at Hallie Q. Brown Center, Penumbra Theater's next-door neighbor in the old Rondo neighborhood. The nonprofit social service center houses boxes of papers and photos from its more than 80-year history, which the students are going through.

"They're actually going to learn how to become digital archivists and help preserve this history that if no one else was working on it, would just keep sitting in those boxes," she said.

As part of the project, Jay Allrich, 19, interviewed some elders about the construction of Interstate Hwy. 94 through the Rondo neighborhood.

"We were talking to an older man, and he remembers his friend's house being demolished — like standing outside on his porch and seeing it get torn down," Allrich said. "And I couldn't imagine me walking outside and ... staring at my neighbor's house, and seeing it torn down, and be like, well, my house is next."

Allrich's classmate Alyssa Castillo said it's exciting to be in a position to make African-American history more accessible for future generations.

"Because I want my nieces and nephews to grow up knowing their history and knowing how rich it was and how amazing and all the hard times they had to go through so that they can feel like they can wear their skin like a badge of honor," she said.

Knowing one's history was what prompted Lou Bellamy to donate Penumbra's archives to the University of Minnesota. He said it was important for him that the company's history not be forgotten, even as it found new ways to move forward.

"I always quote August Wilson. He said, 'I'm standing in my grandfather's shoes' — and I love that image, that I've walked as far as I can in these shoes, and now Sarah has stepped into them, and she's going to walk as far as she can," he said. "And she's not going to start from the beginning. She's going to start from where I left off, and that's a wonderful thing."

Minnesota History Center's exhibition "Penumbra at 40" runs through July 30.