An interview with Lou Bellamy, founder and artistic director of Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minn.
Bellamy to speak at Luther's Black History Conference Thursday, Feb. 25
Wednesday, February 03, 2010 11:31 AM
JBR: Where do you find your own greatest satisfactions from working in theatre?
LB: Theatre is the way I exercise my citizenship. It's the way I interact with my community. I think that an artist has the opportunity to comment from a very strong position. Thinkers from the black community recognized the power of the theater early on in America and sought to use it for teaching, advocating social change, etc. W.E.B. DuBois, most notably -- with playwriting contests, etc., in Crisis and Opportunity (magazines that members of the N.A.A.C.P. received).
JBR: In your artistic director's statement, you note the capacity of theatre "to create an American mythology that includes African Americans and other people of color in every thread and fabric of our society." What do you mean by an "American mythology"? How does theatre contribute to this creation?
LB: I believe that the creation and maintenance of perceptions of self and community are influenced by the stories we tell. The stories we tell shape not only our relationships with others, but that which we call reality. As August Wilson says, "we are what we imagine ourselves to be."
People of color have exerted a profound effect upon American government,history, culture, intellectual thought, etc. Their participation in the building of this legacy is obfuscated (many times intentionally) by stories that do not include them. By exploring the human condition through an African American lens, it becomes clear that almost everything we consider "ours" has been shaped and contributed to by multiple peoples. I want to tell stories that tell "all." Not stories that carry the pejorative connotation of revisionism, but stories that include our entire society.
JBR: You've described Penumbra's theatrical project as being a "pro-active" one -- where, for example, the people who are being portrayed in your productions are also the people in control of those portrayals. Why is this so important to you?
LB: We're dealing with issues and modeling perceptions of things African and African American in an informed manner ... This kind of control over the images and iconologies used to describe the African American ethos only exists in precious few places in the country. It is important that we, whenever we can, tell the whole story.
JBR: Part of Penumbra's stated mission is to maintain a "strong physical link to our environment." What does this physical link mean to you, and why is it so important a part of what Penumbra does?
LB: P[enumbra] T[heatre] C[ompany] is a professional theater inside of a community. It finds its direction in W.E.B. DuBois' mandate for his little theater movement. A theater of, by, for, and near everyday, common, black people. The benefit to the community is enormous and substantiated by many scholarly and governmental studies. The close contact with the community also has the effect of keeping the art truthful and relevant.
We have a responsibility to our community as well as to the artistic communities both locally and nationally. Our productions are meant to extend the discourse inside and outside of our immediate community.
JBR: To, as you've described it elsewhere, make art that illuminates our shared humanity from an African American perspective. This is, to me, a very powerful statement about what it actually means, to be human. Could you elaborate?
LB: If we're true to our hearts and are specific and honest in our portrayals -- complete with warts and all the cultural nuances -- we will create the universal. It's my belief that you learn the most about yourself when you see that self reflected in others. The extent of your humanity may be the extent to which you're able to see yourself in the eyes of people who are different from you. It's always a wonderful thing to see the world in someone else's eyes; that's how we learn to care.