Penumbra steps into the national TV spotlight

Penumbra Theater’s Julie McGarvie says when she first got the call she had her doubts. The person on the other end of the line claimed to be a producer with NBC’s new magazine show “Rock Center.”

“This is really a producer?” she admits wondering at the time.

It turns out it really was. And on Monday night the country’s largest African-American theater company will be profiled at length on the show.

Penumbra founder and artistic director Lou Bellamy says no-one at the company has seen the piece, but the NBC crew began gathering footage after reading about Penumbra’s Kennedy Center performance of “I Wish You Love.”

Bellamy says they flew to the Twin Cities a couple of times, and followed the company to other venues around the country.

“They came to Hartford and taped the show there. They taped some of “Two trains running” that we had up, and interviews with actors and me walking through the park in St Paul and up and down Marshall,” he laughs. “Then they came out to my home, Hoda Kotb came out to my home and we walked around there and talked. And talked about the outdoors and that sort of stuff. It was really cool!”

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Bellamy says he believes NBC’s interest stems from a couple of things. First there is Penumbra’s location.

“When I travel there are people who are surprised to know that there is ANY population of African-Americans in Minnesota. I mean they think we all live in igloos and so forth,” he said. “So that is curious for them that a company, a black company in St Paul would have the kind of national footprint and reach that we have.”

He says the producers were also intrigued by Bellamy himself.

“They seemed to be interested in the fact that I am an artist and my social activism through the art and so forth,” he said. “But also that I am an outdoorsman, and that was curious to them that both those things can live in one body.”

Bellamy says he doesn’t know what will come of the TV exposure, but he hopes it will add momentum to an important element in US theater.

“It’s another step in establishing our worth and contribution to the building of a diversified national theatrical tradition in the United States,” he said. “One that includes everyone.”

Bellamy also sees it as an opportunity to spread the word about the excellence of Penumbra’s work to a new audience.

“I hope what it does is establish our artists and the theater as sort of the definitive source that one might look to to see how this work is done with sensitivity, and awareness and cultural nuance and history and all those sorts of things. All the things that our audiences that our audiences in the Twin Cities take for granted when they come to Penumbra.”

It’s been quite a month for Penumbra. On December 6th the company dropped two shows from the current season as it cut $600,000 from its budget. A new business model is in development and will be unveiled in the spring.

Bellamy describes it as a ‘topsy-turvy’ time. He says it’s unfortunate, but the theater leadership said it was the responsible thing to do, and will help maintain a solid financial footing.

“You are always concerned about the future and placing yourself in a position where you can be nimble, take advantage of opportunity, but not step out so far that you fall through thin ice. So I always talk about it as being sort of looking, standing with your hand on top of your eyes, shielding your eyes from the sun, looking at the horizon, while your underwear is on fire.”

Bellamy won’t get to see the NBC piece as it airs. He’ll be on a plane to Indiana for a Tuesday morning rehearsal for a new production for Cleveland Playhouse of August Wilson’s “Radio Golf,” at Indiana Repertory. It seems likely someone will record it though.

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