Penumbra’s Sarah Bellamy gets ready to talk theater

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“Let’s talk theatre” host Sarah Bellamy (MPR photo/Euan Kerr)

It’s quiet in the offices of Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, but Sarah Bellamy is getting ready to get it jumping.

A few months back when a financial crisis forced the nation’s premier African-American theater to cancel its entire season things looked pretty bad.

“I describe the experience as both harrowing and totally revitalizing at the same point, says Bellamy. “The first few weeks it was like somebody died round here. It was really, really sad.”

Then 1400 donations from near and far rolled in and apparently set the company on the road to recovery. The company announced it will do a production in the spring “Spunk” by George C. Wolfe.

“It’s thrilling. We are so excited and so honored and humbled,” she says with a grin on her face.

“Spunk” opens in mid-March, but tonight Bellamy, who is officially the company’s education director, will begin laying the groundwork for the production as she puts on her hat as the host of Penumbra’s “Lets Talk Theater” series.

Bellamy says the series started last year.

“And the idea was how do we engage people differently around the work that we do and talk more broadly about some of the issues theater bumps against or draws out for us,” she said. “What we found was our community, the people who come to see the plays, they want social opportunities to come together and talk to each other.”

Penumbra launched evenings where the company offered a chance to enjoy a wine and happy hour paired with a discussion of deeper theater topics.

“So we started last year with one about James Baldwin for “The Amen Corner” and we did one on the artistic impact of Penumbra, which was neat. And people really loved them,” said Bellamy.

First two attracted about 60 people, and Bellamy is expecting about the same tonight, where the topic will be the Harlem Renaissance.

George C.Wolfe based his play on three stories gathered in the 1930′s by Zora Neale Hurston. While many people know her as a memoirist and author of such classics as “Their Eyes Were Watching God” Bellamy points out she was also a folklorist who doggedly traveled through the African-American community to collect the stories shared for generations that were in danger of being lost in the early part of the 20th century.

Also Bellamy says while Hurston was a pillar of the Harlem Renaissance, she may not be someone many people might recognize as having an interest in the theater and playwriting

“In fact Zora Neale Hurston was really interested in theater as a tool to change the understanding of the black image more broadly. She was a folklorist, she loved stories she loved sharing those stories with audiences. But she was really adamant about authentic African-American voices, about authenticity.”

Bellamy says she’s excited about talking about how that played into the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston worked with artists such as the poet Langston Hughes to spread the word about what she was doing. She also worked with many other people in the dynamic artistic community that became known as the Harlem Renaissance.

“So what I plan to do on Monday night is really have a conversation about some of the pillars, but also perhaps those people who don’t know about,” she said.

People like Lorenzo Dow Turner and Sterling Brown for example, who worked in comparative anonymity to preserve evidence of a vibrant culture ignored by the rest of academia.

“People who are contributing to the idea of preserving African American folklore and whose work wasn’t really recognized because frankly they didn’t have access to faculty positions at prestigious school and universities,” says Bellamy.

“You start to see a group of incredibly well intentioned activist artists who believe they have something to contribute that will push forward social goals towards racial equity and justice. And then that picture becomes so much deeper and richer. So our engagement with the play “Spunk” becomes not just about the folklore but about the mission of these artists and what they were trying to do.”

Bellamy says the activism in Harlem and the artistic developments were passed slowly through the rest of the African American community throughout the country. She says it took a while and the letters and books got pretty dog-eared, but they kept on going. She also admits there were many white patrons who didn’t always appreciate the focus on what they saw as stories which should be left to fade away. There were a lot of African Americans who felt the same thing.

She says Wolfe carried on the work when he wrote the play in the 1980′s. “Spunk” won an Obie in 1989.

Bellamy says the issues of cultural preservation are still alive today

“So may decades later we are still having the same conversations,” Bellamy said. “About what’s valuable to retain and what we want to draw forward from the past and how do we do that in a way that is authentic to our experience and not something that comes commodified and pre-packaged to shore up expectations that don’t come from within our culture. And I feel that’s why Penumbra exists and the artists working on the play are doing the same thing.”

The “”Lets Talk Theatre” event will also include a musical selection from Sanford Moore. Harry Waters Jr., H. Adam Harris, and Austene Van will all read extracts from “Spunk”.

Bellamy says people who come will have a window into the play that is unique.

“Training new audiences is important and ushering new audiences in, to see the value of theater as being more than just being entertained, especially for Penumbra that does mission critical work.”

She expects the audience tonight to include people who have a deep knowledge of theatre, and those who know a lot about the community but are eager to learn about Penumbra.

“And I love sort of creating an opportunity for those people to cross-pollinate and have interesting conversations that I don’t steer. At that point I kind of sit back and watch. We all sort of marvel at our knowledge of various communal things and that is really fun.”

The event runs from 5.30 to 7.30 tonight. Tickets are $15

“We are really invested in Penumbra being around for, hopefully, another 36 years,” said Bellamy.