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How One Legacy Black Theater Will Make Healing Its Mission

Variety logo Variety 11/24/2020 Gordon Cox
a person posing for the camera © Ann Marsden

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One of the most prominent legacy Black theaters in America is transforming itself, and it’s more than just a pandemic-era pivot. In the coming years, Penumbra Theater in St. Paul, Minn. — the 44-year-old theater that gave August Wilson his first professional production — will expand to become the Penumbra Center for Racial Healing.

Listen to this week’s “Stagecraft” podcast below:

“It’s something that I’ve been dedicated to for a long time,” said Penumbra artistic director Sarah Bellamy on the new episode of Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast. Bellamy had been working on the organizational expansion for nearly five years before the murder of George Floyd sped up the timeline. “We felt the inequity and knew that there were things that were possible, but we couldn’t have known how much it would align with this moment, with the pandemic, and with the incredible tension around race in this country right now.”

But Penumbra won’t lose sight of theater as the organization changes. “You need the art,” Bellamy explained. “You need bold, beautiful art to dream liberation, [and] to dream our way into things that we haven’t experienced.” That’s why she’s making theater an integral component of the Center for Racial Healing, which will also include wellness facilities and programs geared toward activism and enacting policy.

On the new Stagecraft, Bellamy delved into the specifics of how the new center will function, and what she hopes will come from the company’s growth. She also noted that many other theaters around the country also want to make a shift toward equity, but are often hampered by inflexible organizational structures.

Some of these theaters, she said, “haven’t quite figured out how to pivot to support more equitable relationships, [although] many, many leaders want to. I’m on the phone with people all the time about this. But they’re entrenched. Especially the very large ones. It’s hard.”

At Penumbra, Bellamy said the theater’s supportive board has been an important driver of the coming changes. She recalled one of her board members saying to her, “This solves so much of what we’re working on in the corporate sector… Why is no one else doing this?”

To hear to the full conversation, listen at the link above, or download and subscribe to Stagecraft on podcast platforms including Apple PodcastsSpotify, and the Broadway Podcast NetworkNew episodes of “Stagecraft” are released every other week.

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