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Penumbra founder Bellamy honored here

A.P. Anderson Award recipient Lou Bellamy talked about theater as an instrument of social change when he accepted the award recently at the Anderson Center. Photo by Rob Meyer

Lou Bellamy, who created Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul and served as artistic director through its first four decades, is the recipient of the 19th annual A.P. Anderson Award.

Chosen because of his outstanding contributions to the arts and culture of Minnesota, Bellamy was presented with the 2017 award recently at the Anderson Center.

He has been coming to Red Wing for years — fishing below Lock & Dam No. 3, climbing Barn Bluff and hunting for morels, though this was his first visit to Tower View.

Bellamy's love of the outdoors may be a surprising attribute for someone who spent his life in cities and theaters, but Bellamy is not a man to accept stereotypes in life, just as he rejects them on stage.

He founded Penumbra Theatre, for example, because he wanted to produce theater that was authentic and relevant to the issues and concerns of the black community.

Bellamy explained that back in the 1960s, when he was a student at Mankato State University — a teacher's college back then — he was recruited to play the role of an African-American in the play "Finian's Rainbow."

Being involved in theater that challenged the community and engaged people in social justice issues taught him something valuable: The power of theater to build community and to educate.

"Something clicked in me," he explained in a question-answer session following the award presentation. "People let their guard down. You can speak to them, as my daughter says, 'heart first'."

As an actor, he was disappointed when offered "one-dimensional black roles." Bellamy knew that the characters he was seeing in plays were not like his uncles and grandparents — particularly the strong women in his family who had given him an appreciation for the culture that was his heritage.

Bellamy became an OBIE Award-winning director and an accomplished actor. For 38 years he taught at the University of Minnesota theater department.

He founded Penumbra Theatre in 1976; it grew to be the largest African-American theater in the country, dedicated to dramatic exploration of the African-American experience. It has produced 39 world premieres, including plays by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson.

Bellamy said he chose to do black socially conscious theater because "there were stories that weren't being told. I wanted people to see the beauty and richness of the culture."

Bellamy said he presented the plays as if all the people in the house were African-American because he wanted to offer all people an opportunity to "cross the chasm."

Comparing the experience to going to a Shakespearean play, he said, "You have to lean in" and make an effort to understand. When the audience starts to "come into it," he said, "they breathe together, feel things together."

Over four decades, the Penumbra has promoted social change through art, education and community programs grounded in the black experience. It launched the careers of many playwrights and actors.

Bellamy has passed the torch to a new artistic director, Sarah Bellamy, following three years of filling the role side-by-side. She is a playwright, director and educator, and is also his daughter.

"I am thrilled for Penumbra and for her," he told the Twin Cities media. "She grew up in this theater and has a deep understanding of the cultural import of her work. I'm a practitioner, but Sarah has the intellectual and theoretical rigor that makes a father ... proud."

Penumbra's 40th anniversary season is under way, with the theme "Still We Rise" and a continuing commitment to producing "artistically excellent, thought-provoking, relevant art that illuminates the human condition through the prism of the African American experience."

A black tie gala was held May 20, and Sarah Bellamy announced a full season of activities, including a summer institute for young people, a film series, a revival of Wilson's "Jitney" and the annual holiday show, "Black Nativity," along with some new, cutting-edge works.

Honoring the anniversary, the Minnesota History Center mounted an exhibit about the Penumbra, subtitled "Art, Race, and a Nation on Stage."

The exhibit, which will remain on display until July 30, features original scripts, props, costumes, set pieces and photos that document the journey of the company and the people who sustain it.

As for himself, Bellamy said in an interview for the Republican Eagle, "I am officially 'emeritus.'"

But he's not ready to take it easy.

"I have become a little evangelistic," he said.

He has launched a new project, taking his viewpoint around the country to small and large theaters. Bellamy is spending a month or more in residence while directing He's doing "Fences" in Portland, Ore., and another "I've got a few years more," he told the Anderson Center audience. "I want to spend it trying to make the world better somehow."