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ChangeMakers: Lou and Sarah Bellamy, using theater to give voice

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Sarah and Lou Bellamy sit for a portrait at Penumbra Theater in St. Paul.
Sarah and Lou Bellamy sit for a portrait at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul on Tuesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Every weekday in February, MPR News is featuring black Minnesotans making history to celebrate Black History Month.

Lou Bellamy, 75, founded Penumbra Theatre in 1976 to provide a platform for African-American voices. His daughter, Sarah Bellamy, 40, took over as the company's artistic director in 2017.

"We wanted to give voice to people who had heretofore been voiceless or had been represented in ways where they didn't have control over the iconology and images used to describe them," Lou Bellamy said. "We wanted to give them that voice here. Our grandparents, our uncles, all those people who weren't allowed to speak in many of the other Twin Cities theaters at the time."

The St. Paul-based theater has been recognized as one of the premier African-American theaters in the country. 

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In the context of Black History Month, what does it mean to you to be a black Minnesotan?

Lou Bellamy: It's wonderful to be black anywhere. But in Minnesota ... because of the demographics of the state, one has to seek out cultural approbation and experience in a different kind of way.

Where there are states where there is a larger black population, it is there. It's part of who you are and it's reinforced all over. I think of a city like Atlanta, for instance, where you just see black people doing everything on all parts of the spectrum. You have to look for that kind of representation in Minnesota. But I think because of that we may be heartier and learn more ways to seek that out and find it. 

But it's a challenge. It really is.

Sarah Bellamy: For me being black in Minnesota has meant really finding a tremendous anchor here at Penumbra Theatre. I grew up in this theater company, in this building with black elders who imagined a space where folks could come together and be in community together and feel safe. That was really important to me and to my own racial identity development.

I also attended a private school for 13 years. I was one of few students of color there. Navigating the difference between those two worlds is something that I think a lot of black folks my age have learned to do, to kind of code switch in different environments. 

I think also for me being black in Minnesota is as diverse as it is being black anywhere. People may not think of, for example, folks traditionally fishing or hunting or those kinds of things but I grew up doing that with my father and certainly that's a major facet of our cultural survival here in this country. You know the black experience isn't always an urban experience. 

And I think today being situated in St. Paul and constantly being replenished and affirmed by the elders of the community feels so important to me. So I feel a great responsibility to maintain that legacy and also to to make them proud.

What figures have shaped you into the person you are today?

Lou Bellamy: Women have played a large role in my development [and] in the shaping of my approach to life, my approach to art. I had very strong great-grandmothers, aunts, grandmothers and a mother who was just hell on wheels.

That continually comes into play in my art. I always will ask, "Well, what are the women thinking? What are they doing?" When you do that you come up with something that allows them voice and people who are not used to seeing women with agency voice. They go like, "What? I've never seen that before. I never knew that was in that play." Well, it is there and those women are there.

I've also been fortunate in my life that when I've gone astray ... there were people inside of the community that saw something in me before I saw it in myself. They would shake me up, you know, or slap me in the head [and say], "Boy, straighten up. You got a little meat on your head. Act like you've got some sense." Some are still around — Josie Johnson, Mahmoud El-Kati, John Wright.

Sarah Bellamy: I think that some of the people who have shaped my life most profoundly are certainly my parents. I grew up the beneficiary of a father who believed very deeply in the agency and access and empowerment for women and girls. I have an incredibly strong and resilient mother. I have a very talented and creative and resilient brother. My family were my major touchstones. We were, in a lot of ways, a little island to ourselves and [my family] gave me a certain kind of respite from the stresses of the rest of the world.

The other profound influences on my life truly have been in theater and literature. I grew up steeped in powerful, evocative drama that showed the courage, the breadth and the depth of the African-American experience. ...

I think of Toni Morrison and James Baldwin and Frantz Fanon and Aime Cesaire. Just all of these beautiful, beautiful black artists — both in the United States and in the Caribbean and West Africa — who really shaped, not only my sense of how we could construct our narratives and build worlds for ourselves, but also stand in powerful critique of injustice. My black experience has been deeply influenced and steeped in activism and advocacy and I'm very grateful for that.

What's your hope for the future of black people in Minnesota?

Lou Bellamy: It is easy to get sidetracked on this journey. Unless you have artists — perhaps scholars — who are aware of the hurdles in the past and the challenges that we've had, you come into as a young person a life that is bereft of many of those challenges. The things that shaped us, and shaped my parents and made us as strong as some of us have been fortunate to be,  may not be there. But you have to remember that those things shaped your community, your family, your parents [and] so forth. You're heir to a tremendous legacy.

I think that in many ways some of us after the civil rights movement made terrible mistakes. We did great things. Phenomenal brave things. I look at some of the people that have had dogs set on them and so forth.

After that happened we sort of went home after the war and relaxed and said, "OK, it's done." Then you look up and you see that Strom Thurmond is head of the [Senate] Judiciary Committee, or we have a president who calls the places that I came from "shithole countries." So you have to be eternally vigilant. 

That is what I want more for future generations than anything: That they be aware of the cost and the price that people paid to put them in a place that they are.

Sarah Bellamy: I hope for joy. I hope for justice. I hope for peace. I hope for wellness. I hope for a strong tie and foundation to our roots, and to our history, and the courage and wherewithal to dream bigger than we ever thought possible.

I think the only way that you can truly imagine a space that is beyond our sense of belief is to know where we've come from. So, I hope we hold the greatness of our history. And that we continue to, not just survive, but really truly thrive so that we can raise tomorrow's children and the children that are waiting to be born with a sense of cultural pride, and place, and a sense of their own power.