Q&A: Penumbra's Lou Bellamy on his brother Terry's legacy

Three people sit around a table
From left to right: Abdul Salaam El Razzac, Marcus Naylor and Terry Bellamy in "Jitney."
Courtesy of Allen Weeks

Local actor and director Terry Bellamy has died from COVID at the age of 70. Bellamy was a founding member of the Penumbra and Mixed Blood theaters, as well as a two-time Drama Critic's Circle Award-winner. 

Terry Bellamy was a constant presence in Twin Cities' theater as an actor, director, playwright and educator. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson used Bellamy as the inspiration for the character Levee from “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.”

“Dramaturgy ignited him. He gravitated toward anything that debunked racist myths about our people and culture,” wrote Sarah Bellamy, his niece, in a press release. 

MPR News spoke to Lou Bellamy, Bellamy’s brother and longtime collaborator. Lou Bellamy is also founder and co-artistic director of the Penumbra.  

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What does losing Terry mean to your family, which is so intertwined with the Penumbra Theatre? 

Well, one of the things that separated us, the way we do art at Penumbra, and our family, from other artistic institutions, is that the family life, the life of the artist, is not separated from the art in in the way that many people do it.  

So, when you lose someone like a Terry Bellamy, it not only leaves a hole inside of the family, but it's a brain trust and an artistic sort of benchmark that is costly to the company as well.  

What was Terry’s role in founding the Penumbra? 

We started out with CETA [Comprehensive Employment Training Act] grant, which was a federal government program. With that grant, I was able to hire a standing company 20 actors, and Terry was in that first company.  

As my brother, he's always been around when I've been acting. He just took to it naturally. He had had talent, and if someone has talent, you can show them how to show that talent off better, but you certainly can't put it there if it's not there. And in he had that.  

He also had just an uncanny sort of ability to get at dramatic text and ferret out where problems were. He was just a natural for the stage. 

Terry got his start acting in “Sty and the Blind Pig” at the Mixed Blood theater in the 1970s. Tell us about that. 

I was in that show with him. I directed Mixed Blood’s first show.  

He was fortunate enough to come along when Black writers were really beginning to flex their muscles and be noticed by the larger society. So, he sort-of helped shepherd that Black Arts Movement in, grew through all of those good roles, from young men up until you know, playing a Turnbo in “Jitney” who's in his 70s.  

That's a lovely thing to get around, you know, to grow up through those roles. 

Three people smile in a black and white photo
Terry Bellamy (far left); Edna Duncan (far right) in 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' in 1987.
Courtesy of Penumbra Theatre

What do you think was his most impactful role? 

Easily Levee in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” He helped create that role.  

He read scripts for August Wilson. He was in early readings of the play. And there are many of us who see lots of Terry in his own life in that character Levee.  

Playwrights will need to hear their work and submit it to dramatic test. The only way to do that is to put it in the hands of an actor and let them pour themselves into it, and as that play developed, it became obvious that there was a connection between the actor and the character that was extraordinary. 

Why do you think he connected to that role? 

Terry had an acting style that was aggressive and could be confrontive. The text demanded that of him. And he had some of that fire burning in him ready to come out and the text gave him an opportunity to do that.  

The Black Arts Movement, which he felt a part of, had to do with calling out injustices and a lot of anger. He had the craft, the muscle, and the will to meet those roles head on. He tended to meld with them in ways that people, once they've seen it — we'll just never forget it. 

A man smiles at the camera
Terry Bellamy.
Courtesy of Penumbra Theatre

What impact has he left on the theater community in Minnesota and beyond? 

He had a sort of natural centering device for dramaturgy. He could get to the heart of a text in just no time.  

Any of those plays that he worked on when they were early in their creation, they will last forever. He created the role of [James] Hewlett in Carlyle Brown’s “The African Company Presents Richard III.” He's just put a stamp on many of those characters.  

Penumbra has a style of acting that was developed by engaging those texts, and a few committed actors who felt that they were doing more than a play there.  

They were living their lives on the stage and solving problems and confronting issues in their own lives while playing a role. It allowed a creative and socially acceptable out, a way to be to turn lots of disappointment and anger into beautiful art.  

What should people know to better understand who Terry Bellamy was? 

Because he had an amazing amount of talent, and had his craft at his fingertips and he could access that craft almost seamlessly.  

He might have given the impression that he was gifted rather than studied. By that, I mean he developed his craft, he worked at it. He read and was with the best actors of his generation. He was taking that stuff in and then seamlessly applying.  

Too often, actors that have that ability are not given credit for the intellectual part of building that craft.  

There are intellectual choices that are made all along the way that happen in a few seconds on stage, but unless you are intellectually able to engage the text, and deconstruct it for yourself, you can never construct it for an audience.  

And I think that actors like Terry that have that gift, don't get credited for the intellectual dimension of the drama. 

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment‘s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.