New book details Penumbra Theatre’s legacy

On Monday Penumbra Theatre will celebrate the publication of a new book that explores the company’s 35 year history and artistic legacy.

Written by Macelle Mahala, assistant professor of theater arts at the University of Pacific, “Penumbra: The Premier Stage for African American Drama” documents the theater’s modest beginnings in the settlement house movement, then moves on to capture its connections with playwright August Wilson, the Black Arts Movement, and feminism.

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Mahala says she hopes the book will help to preserve Penumbra’s legacy. In studying theater, Mahala was surprised that she could only find one book on a black theater.

“There are plenty of books out there about black theater in general, or about particular artists, but not about black theaters. And there are so many wonderful black theater companies out there.”

Mahala says she designates Penumbra as the “premier stage” for African American drama because of its long history, during which time it has had a tremendous influence on its profession.

“The relationship between Penumbra and August Wilson is singular.” said Mahala, speaking by phone from California. “The work that Penumbra did with some of the seminal texts coming out of the Black Arts Movement, with feminist performance art in the 90s, as well as more recent collaborations… all of these are instances that show that Penumbra is at the forefront of theater, and has been so over time.”

The book also recounts the struggles Penumbra has faced in sustaining itself financially.

“This is a problem that is not unique to Penumbra,” explained Mahala. “Many theaters of color face these recurring financial challenges. I don’t know what the answer is. One of the goals is to have more individual funding for the theater, and the response to the recent crisis they faced was certainly promising in that respect. Whether they will be able to maintain or build on that remains to be seen. In terms of long term sustainability it would be wonderful to see an endowment or something of that nature.”

Mahala says that the ideas August Wilson advocated for – having African American theater companies that were funded on a par with America’s regional theaters, for example – in many cases remain to be realized.

“We’re definitely not in a post-racial moment. Issues of race, culture and agency are still being worked out and fought for in our society today. Recently, I’ve been following the controversy over “Miss Saigon”  and that speaks to me about the continued need for culturally specific theater,  theater that is created by people from the backgrounds of the culture that are being represented on the stage. I think that’s really important in terms of social justice and equality.”

Mahala will be at the theater Monday night to discuss the new book in conversation with Lou and Sarah Bellamy.