Eyes Wide Open

The Potentials (and pitfalls) of Partnership

In 1996 August Wilson delivered a compelling call to action to the Theatre Communications Group. He noted that “black theatre in America is alive … it is vibrant … it is vital … it just isn’t funded.” Wilson argued that economic systems in the United State disproportionally supported larger cultural institutions that “perpetuated white culture.” Almost twenty years later there are perhaps fewer black theaters but more collaborations between these companies and regional theaters.

Founded in 1976, Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota, premiered a number of Wilson’s plays, and Founder Lou Bellamy has directed these plays and others at regional theaters nationwide. In doing so, he has navigated numerous personal and institutional relationships shedding light on the social dynamics of those partnerships. Penumbra is currently embarking on a collaboration with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) as part of the American Revolutions Project, in which OSF commissions plays that grapple with moments of change in US history. Project Director Alison Carey invited Penumbra and playwright Dominique Morisseau to collaborate on a play exploring the Civil War from African American perspectives. Carey was adamant that this be an institutional rather than individual collaboration—that OSF needed Penumbra’s holistic expertise. Stephanie Lein Walseth and Sonja Arsham Kuftinec are Minnesota-based scholars whose current research centers on Penumbra and OSF. They interviewed Lou Bellamy about the collaboration and the insights it reveals about contemporary American theater and the ongoing politics of race and representation.

All relationships are human and individual, and we’ve got to move from a place where those individual relationships turn into community or institutional relationships because those outlive the people.

Institutions and Individuals

Stephanie Lein Walseth: How has your relationship with companies like Minnesota’s Guthrie Theater shaped your expectations as you enter into this collaboration with Oregon Shakespeare Festival?

Lou Bellamy: What seems to be the issue, the most defining point, is if the largely white organization is willing to accept our role as expert. And they’re not willing to do that most of the time. They feel that their expertise in Shakespeare and Chekhov and the rest of their repertoire makes them an expert in this area [African American theater] as well. Who is the expert here? Is it you, or is it me? If it’s you, you go do the play, I’m out of it. If it’s me, then you’re going to have to give me the ability to do what I think is necessary to bring it to fruition.

Sonja Kuftinec: Are you talking not only about individual relationships with artistic staff, but also about institutional relationships?

Lou: It’ll always come down to individuals. Always. But what needs to happen in my view is a long-term commitment to institutions working together.

Sonja: So, is this collaboration between OSF and Penumbra institutional or individual?

Lou: It’s evolving. It started out, as you said, individually. [OSF Artistic Director] Bill [Rauch] wanted to work with me as a director. When I got out there and started working, it was clear that what I was bringing into OSF was a community. Bill picked up on that. He’s also got an egalitarian sense of social justice. He understands it uniquely by being gay and out, and that informs as well as obfuscates. He is still wielding the big stick in this collaboration. These institutions are equal in value, but not necessarily in money or amount of work. So far, and we’re just beginning, the interaction with the playwright has been really equal. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to have a symposium here [at the University of Minnesota] with Dominique [Morisseau]—to let her know that although the check says OSF, both institutions are involved in this in a serious way.

people talking in a circle
Lou Bellamy speaking with OSF's Executive Director Cynthia Rider and Associate Producer Claudia Alick at a benefit held in Penumbra's honor at OSF on June 24, 2013, while Bellamy was on site directing a production of August Wilson's Two Trains Running. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Good Stories and “Post-Racial” Landscapes

Sonja: What do you think constitutes a “good story” within this collaboration?

Lou: From my point of view, it’s when everything is written, directed, acted, produced, and contextualized from an African American perspective for an African American audience. It gives authenticity to the work. I will say that my fear in dealing with these largely white institutions is that they push the art towards center and it gets homogenized and I want it to fly off to the edges.

Stephanie: A recurring theme I’ve heard from audiences less familiar with African American culture is a desire for resolution, for a kind of racial “happy ending.”

Lou: It comes up with the black middle class as well. They want to talk about tax shelters and hot tubs (chuckles). Barack Obama complicated this stuff so much. His election was such a huge step for America, and it tricked a lot of us into believing that we now live in a post-racial society, but it is clear that we’re not past our racialized history. In fact, our current moment so accurately mirrors Reconstruction after the Civil War that I am amazed. It’s that same sort of feeling from white America that “We’ve got to take our country back.” So, I think we all sort of relaxed. But it was a mistake. Josie Johnson, a rights activist, talks about institutional racism like a rubber band, and she says “As long as an individual stands in there and holds that band open, people can go in and come out. But as soon as that person tires or walks away, that rubber band goes back to its original shape.” That’s why you need these relationships to be institutional and these commitments to be long-term.

Stephanie: Your production of The Amen Corner at the Guthrie did seem like an intervention that shaped a different kind of relationship between audience and performer.

Lou: Yes, but the problem is as soon as those black bodies and that community are no longer in that space, it just snaps back. Look at the way that play was contextualized. I was not going to allow that gospel music in unless we had the community staged as well. It’s bad enough that [the Guthrie sound system] blows those Elizabethan horns to call you [the audience] in. And every time a black person comes up the stairs, someone runs up to them and says, “Can I help you?” I know what they think they’re doing, but what they’re really doing has the, perhaps unintended effect, of telling the black person, “You don’t belong.” It smacks of the treatment a black person experiences who walks into an unwelcoming grocery store or a clothing store.

actors on stage
The community surrounding Sister Margaret Alexander's church in Harlem comes alive as a prologue to the action. It was critical to Bellamy's production that the characters in the play were surrounded and immersed in a community, part of a larger African American milieu in The Amen Corner. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Whenever we place black bodies on the stage and are intentional about it, we begin to change that narrative.

actors on stage
As Sister Margaret Alexander, Greta Oglesby, leads her congregation with a soulful and fiery passion. Behind and alongside her are the cast and the Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church choir members in The Amen Corner. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Stephanie: Audiences so often equate a production with the building it’s presented in, so they’re not always aware that it’s a Penumbra production, contextualized from the perspective that you talked about—by, for, and about. So when they come to the next production they expect to see the same thing, but it has not been contextualized in the same way.

Lou: I’ve seen this on so many occasions. We will come in [to a space like the Guthrie] and do something that has wide appeal, like Fences. You tell a black audience, “It’s safe. You can come in here. You’re not going to be insulted, you’re going to have a good time. It’s going to be about you.” Then the next play they attend has a hurtful and derogatory stereotype or caricature in it. The effect of such an encounter on the black audience member is analogous to winding a jack-in-the-box, which will inevitably be sprung, reminding the audience member that he/she is still an interloper and subject, at any time, to extreme embarrassment and disrespect.

Difference without Difference

Lou: There’s also an issue about place and where these things happen. It’s different going to the Guthrie than it is coming to Penumbra. What’s happening is that they want black audiences, they want part of black culture, but they’re not always willing to accept it in its totality. Even at the university. When I was in graduate school Horace Bond was there, and the department said they wanted to open up to the community. Well, Horace started doing The Electronic Nigger and Clara’s Old Man and Baraka and all this stuff. Well, those black folks started coming in! And they were really in there. Well, [another faculty member] came around and told this person, “You’re going to have to move your feet, sir.” Well this dude went off on him. (chuckles) You know, they say they want the people but they don’t really want the people. They want them as long as they act like…

Stephanie: They want difference but not difference.

Lou: Yes, they want control. Nice straight lines. You’ve read that essay I wrote on “The Colonization of Black Theater.” I still maintain that with all of the black expertise in this art form, it is unbelievable that we have not been able to maintain a major institution capable of developing this work, rather than farming part it out to the Guthrie, part of it to OSF, you know? When a society is powerful it can determine its own direction, and give support to that which it feels is important. These kinds of resources aren’t available inside of the community, so we lose our best and brightest. They go away.

Making History

Sonja: What role do ethnically specific theaters like Penumbra play in making history through theater, especially around something like the Civil War?

Lou: Whenever we place black bodies on the stage and are intentional about it, we begin to change that narrative. The United States has always been good about taking ideas. They took the idea of representational government from the Iroquois. But they don’t leave the strings on where the ideas came from. So we go back and look at that narrative and fill in the gaps or dispel the untruths.

Sonja: How do you think Dominique’s play might complicate the received historical narrative around the Civil War?

Lou: I expect her to understand both that macro and micro view of history, to see it from the inside so that it has the right rhythms and nuances. She reminds me a lot of Ed Bullins —the people aren’t scrubbed up, they’ve got real problems, and they’re black problems, but they’re presented in a milieu where they’re being moved by social forces but they’re also moving. I also expect her to have women play a really important part in the story. Not because she’s a woman, because that isn’t enough to guarantee it, unfortunately, but I’ve seen her other work and these women are tough cookies. And she’s of the people, and she can really write. I think she’s special. I do.

Sonja: What do you see as the role of the Archie Givens Collection of African American literature at the University of Minnesota?

Lou: I wanted Dominique to understand that this black archive in itself is worth something and I wanted her to use us as a resource. There is a gestalt achieved by having all that stuff together. She walked in there, and we were down in the stacks, and she pulled out a Zora Neale Hurston story that her mother used to read, and you should have seen her face—“Oh, my mother…!” I also wanted her to see what those plays look like when they’re done here. I wanted to throw it all at her and say we’ll do almost anything to make this happen truthfully and honestly. And we’ve got an audience that knows the difference.

Stephanie: You’re talking about connecting to the depth of that contextualization that Penumbra’s done for over 35 years.

Lou: Maybe it’s just because I’m so old, but I’m really into these institutions now, because I’m at the end of it, you know? And if we haven’t laid down the right stuff, then we’ll start right back at zero. But none of these collaborations would happen, if there weren’t a person from that larger institution that said, “I want to do something.” Because we’ve been standing out here hollering since the African Grove [Theatre], you know?) “Let us in! We know something! These plays are important! You’re only telling part of the story!” I think these black institutions, these cultural institutions want to play with all those toys and levers and lights and all that, and they owe themselves and their board and donors, but it’s tricky. I got to meet Desmond Tutu and he told me this story, “When the whites came, we had the land and they had the bible. And they asked us to close our eyes and pray, and when we opened our eyes, we had the bible and they had the land.” So, that’s what happens when you do this work, you know? You have to be very intentional about what you’re going to get out of it and keep your eyes open.

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Thanks to you all for this article. Penumbra is an elder Blk theatre and is worthy to be lifted and honored daily! I do have a question, listening to the anxiety around collaboration, what are some tools that is used in order to make the relationship between Blk theatre a and larger white run institutions real and not just of the moment?

What is the long term benefit for Blk theaters to collaborate with larger white organizations?! Is there a long term benefit?

Wilsons speech to TCG was an integral part of Blk theatre history. In this speech he says basically that blks are real and we should be acknowledged. Throughout Blk history this claim is been made. My concern is that we as Blk theaters spend so much time asking to be seen by larger white institutions and not enough time on actually working on the inside needs and concerns of the actual Blk theatre. Has capitalism brought us to this space that the thought of good art is attached to how many finances a theatre has?!

It is my thought that Blk theaters have a huge knowledge base that is underused and sometimes not seen by the very makers of its art. May we see ourselves before we ask to be seen by others.

Many blessings