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The Premier Stage for African American Drama

Macelle Mahala

Publication Year: 2013

Penumbra Theatre Company was founded in 1976 by Lou Bellamy as a venue for African American voices within the Twin Cities theatre scene and has stood for more than thirty-five years at the intersection of art, culture, politics, and local community engagement. It has helped launch the careers of many internationally respected theatre artists and has been repeatedly recognized for its artistic excellence as the nation’s foremost African American theatre.

Penumbra is the first-ever history of this barrier-breaking institution. Based on extensive interviews with actors, directors, playwrights, producers, funders, and critics, Macelle Mahala’s book offers a multifaceted view of the theatre and its evolution. Penumbra follows the company’s emergence from the influential Black Arts and settlement house movements; the pivotal role Penumbra played in the development of August Wilson’s career and, in turn, how Wilson became an avid supporter and advocate throughout his life; the annual production of Black Nativity as a community-building performance; and the difficult economics of African American theatre production and how Penumbra has faced these challenges for nearly four decades.

Penumbra is a testament to how a theatre can respond to and thrive within changing political and cultural realities while contributing on a national scale to the African American presence on the American stage. It is a celebration of theatre as a means of social and cultural involvement—both local and national—and ultimately, of Penumbra’s continuing legacy of theatre that is vibrant, diverse, and vital.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

This book is the first comprehensive study of Penumbra Theatre Company, the largest and generally considered most influential African American theatre company in the United States. Macelle Mahala’s familiarity with the theatre and its programming as an August Wilson Fellow at the University of Minnesota...

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pp. xi-xvi

My earliest memory of visiting Penumbra Theatre Company was as part of a high school field trip I took when I was a student at the Perpich Center for Arts Education. I remember the school bus driving through the historically black Selby-Dale neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota, and dropping us off at the main...

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1 Beginnings

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pp. 1-20

Penumbra Theatre Company was founded in 1976. It has operated continuously since that moment and is one of the few theatre companies created during the Black Arts movement that still exists today. Because Penumbra is housed inside a community center, its history is also intimately linked to the legacy of the Settlement...

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2 Building a Repertoire and an Ensemble

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pp. 21-42

Over the course of its first decade, Penumbra Theatre Company was able to cultivate a cohesive ensemble and develop a signature performance style. During this time, Penumbra expanded its programming by adding the production of African American musicals to its repertoire and beginning a formal new play development...

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3 Black Nativity

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pp. 43-58

When Black Nativity premiered in New York City in 1961, its title was provocative. The use of the term black was still considered a contentious and political act. New York Times columnist Sam Zolotow suggested the title was “in bad taste,” and the lead actress quit the production, citing religious differences, after producers...

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4 Dynamic Reciprocity: August Wilson and Penumbra

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pp. 59-80

The intersection of August Wilson’s career with the history of Penumbra Theatre Company is still relatively underappreciated and underanalyzed. Wilson’s association with Penumbra over many decades resulted in several significant contributions to African American theatre. Penumbra helped Wilson theorize the social import...

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5 Black Feminist Performance

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pp. 81-116

Because of its historical ties to both the Black Arts movement and the work of August Wilson (much of which is centered around ensembles of African American men), Penumbra Theatre Company is not usually associated with feminist performance practices. Echoing the feminist critiques of the Black Power...

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6 Intercultural Collaborations

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pp. 117-142

Penumbra Theatre Company illuminates the human condition from the prism of African American experiences.1 This does not mean, however, that the theatre fails to participate in crosscultural or global conversations. In the late 1990s and first decade of the twenty-first century, Penumbra produced several plays that...

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7 Maintaining a Legacy

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pp. 143-162

In recent years Penumbra Theatre Company has faced a series of financial challenges while simultaneously preparing for the eventual retirement of founder and artistic director Lou Bellamy. Consequently, the theatre has taken steps to document its own history and prepare for an uncertain future. In 2006, Penumbra donated...


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pp. 163-172

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pp. 173-174

Many individuals and institutions contributed to the creation of this book. I would like to thank Lou Bellamy, Sarah Bellamy, and Chris Widdess from Penumbra Theatre Company for their openness and willingness to support this project in many ways, including access to the interviews in the August Wilson Lab and ...


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pp. 175-190


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pp. 191-204

About the Author, Further Reading

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pp. 205-208


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pp. PS1-PS8

E-ISBN-13: 9780816688272
E-ISBN-10: 0816688273
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816683789

Page Count: 216
Publication Year: 2013