Sarah Bellamy – daughter of Penumbra Theatre founder, Lou Bellamy – was recently named co-artistic director of Penumbra, the nation’s largest African-American theater company.
The two Bellamys will co-head the company for the next three years when at that time the younger Bellamy will assume the leadership post on her own. The change reflects several changes within the St. Paul theater company which was forced to cancel its season last year due to budget shortfalls. The theater was able to rebound, raising nearly $360,000 that allowed Penumbra to pay its outstanding debts and secure an additional $1.2 million in funding to move the company forward.
Discussing the cancellation of the prior season, Sarah Bellamy said, “It was devastating. It was both harrowing and humbling.”
Sarah Bellamy said the outpouring of community support for the theater inspired her.
“There was the question of did the community want to see the doors of Penumbra close and the resounding answer was absolutely not,” said Sarah Bellamy, who at 35 years of age is one of the youngest theater directors in the nation. “When we hit our crisis point, we received donations from $5 to $5,000 and all of it mattered. Some of the most memorable gifts were when elders came up to me with $5 bills in their hands to give to us.”
The new co-artistic director said the not-for-profit company has adopted a new model of generating revenue for long-term stability. Sarah Bellamy said most African-American arts organizations heavily rely on corporate donations to the tune of 60 percent or more, while other majority arts organizations function primarily off private individual donations. While Penumbra will continue to seek corporate funding, Sarah Bellamy said the company located in the historic Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul, will place heavy emphasis on seeking individual donors.
“A big focus is going to be on seeking multi-year individual donations, which will help us better budget,” said Sarah Bellamy.
Sarah Bellamy said in addition to seeking community funding, the company is reaching out to increase the visibility of the 250-seat theater that produces plays that are unique to the African-American experience.
“This is a different kind of theater. You don’t see this kind of theater in the Twin Cities,” said Sarah Bellamy.
The upcoming run of “The Ballad of Emmett Till” serves as an example of the unique programming provided by Penumbra. The play takes a look at the short life of Emmett Till, a 13-year-old child infamously murdered for supposedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. The stunning set is constructed with the actual (harsh and biting) words of the acquitted – and later confessed – killers of the young child, who was visiting from Chicago when he was brutalized and killed.
“The Ballad of Emmett Till” runs Feb. 6 – March 2.
“Penumbra has become a beacon for Black actors and it also makes the case that Black life is valuable and worthy of cultural exploration,” said Sarah Bellamy. “For the most part people leave here and go to other (theaters) where they don’t treat history with the same level of care and respect and they’re disgusted