LEILA FADEL, HOST:
It's been a challenge for theaters around the country to recover from the worst days of the pandemic. But some are using this time as an opportunity for reinvention. In the final segment of our series "The Next Stage," NPR's Neda Ulaby says Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minn., is looking to the future partly by burrowing into its past.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: This little theater, grounded in a historically Black neighborhood, has grown tremendous African American talent for almost 50 years, says its founder, Lou Bellamy.
LOU BELLAMY: I remember August Wilson telling me stories right out here in the hall that turned out to be plays.
ULABY: Plays that turned out to be masterpieces, like "Fences" that won the Pulitzer Prize and became a movie starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FENCES")
DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Troy Maxson) It's not easy for me to admit that I've been standing in the same place for 18 years.
VIOLA DAVIS: (As Rose Lee Maxson) Well, I've been standing with you.
ULABY: Now August Wilson has a big Broadway theater named after him, but this, his former home theater, is teeny, like a snug school auditorium, with cinderblock walls and a well-worn lobby, all inside a community center from the 1970s.
L BELLAMY: When it was built, there was no reason to put a theater in it, but it was part of what the Black people who were on the board and so forth thought of as the good life.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (Singing) Come ye...
ULABY: Penumbra came out of the Black arts movement, which emphasized self-reliance. Penumbra's annual "Black Nativity" is a Twin Cities Christmas staple, but the theater is also known nationally for developing new plays by Black writers.
L BELLAMY: It's a lot of work to put on a play, and I have never been able to request or exact that kind of work unless it had some sort of social justice function. It had to be more than art for art's sake.
ULABY: Neither art nor social justice is known to pay the bills. Bellamy says it's taken a toll to stay afloat.
L BELLAMY: We've mortgaged our house many times to make payroll.
ULABY: Always paying actors, but sometimes so little. Bellamy remembers suggesting one do a role mostly for the exposure.
L BELLAMY: And he told me, that's something you die of in Minnesota - exposure. I don't need that.
ULABY: When Bellamy stepped down as executive director in 2017, his daughter took over. Last year, Sarah Bellamy got the call every not-for-profit dreams of - MacKenzie Scott's foundation was giving Penumbra $5 million.
SARAH BELLAMY: It was shocking. I mean, I was buying groceries, you know, and I thought, I'll just take this quick call. It was like a green light from the universe that we were on the right path.
ULABY: That money from Jeff Bezos' ex-wife came on top of another $2.5 million from the Ford Foundation. All those years of scrapping, making art against the odds, had paid off. But for Sarah Bellamy, it raised a question.
S BELLAMY: What if I could go back to the founding principles of this organization, to the deeper dream that the artists had about being well and healthy?
ULABY: Health and racial disparity is the theme of the play up at Penumbra now. It's a world premiere called "Weathering," about a woman whose grief and rage about miscarrying her baby is shared by her friends and family.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Black babies in the U.S. die at three times the rate of white babies.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: When they have a white doctor.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Right. But when they have a Black doctor, that rate is a third lower - a third.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: How about that?
ULABY: When you work with the theater, living by its politics, and that theater suddenly has millions of dollars, that means the cast and crew gets a wellness stipend on the first day of rehearsal, says "Weathering's" director Colette Robert.
COLETTE ROBERT: I wasn't expecting it. There are institutions that retroactively do something like that if something comes up. But the forward thinking to be like, hey, this is a kind of heavy show, like, treat yourself throughout the process - it was just really extraordinary.
ULABY: An extraordinary process that began early, she says. Penumbra paid a number of midwives and doulas, all people of color, to help develop a script about losing a child.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We're here to help people cry.
ULABY: You can hear them working on it in rehearsal. Penumbra's president, Sarah Bellamy.
S BELLAMY: Not because we wanted the show to feel more authentic - we wanted the artists who are shepherding this piece into being to know the sacred work that they were entering into, illuminating an issue that is killing people.
ULABY: Working on this play was partly powerful, says midwife Jennifer Almanza, because of a death here that got national attention.
JENNIFER ALMANZA: Our George Floyd really opened up that conversation. I get teared up every time I talk about him for some reason.
ULABY: Almanza, who is also a certified nurse, works at Regions Hospital in St. Paul. Floyd's murder in 2020, she says, less than two miles from this theater, coalesced the community.
ALMANZA: These connections between community theaters like Penumbra and institutions like Regions Hospital - they're new. I would say they probably wouldn't have been possible even three years ago. And that in and of itself is bringing about racial healing.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Actors company, this is your five-minute call.
ULABY: These days, Penumbra says, it's both a theater and a center for racial healing. President Sarah Bellamy wants to boost a local, diverse arts ecosystem. For example, she says, Penumbra depends on the famous Children's Theatre of Minneapolis.
S BELLAMY: That is so many kids in Minnesota's first introduction to theater. If that didn't exist, would we have the audiences that we do here, generation after generation? If the Guthrie hadn't been founded in Minnesota, would all of these other theater companies have the ability to thrive? I don't know.
ULABY: There's so much scarcity in regional theaters, she says, and that usually leads to competition. But in Minnesota, it's more like a rainforest.
S BELLAMY: And if one species is wiped out, it threatens the whole thing. So be invested in the wellness of everyone.
ULABY: When Penumbra first started, it did radical stuff that more theaters are beginning to experiment with today, like offering free childcare to help people see plays and programming for those children. It's investing in a risk fund to help the kind of big swings Penumbra has always done.
DANIEL ALEXANDER JONES: What does it mean to value your own?
ULABY: That's Daniel Alexander Jones. The performance artist has worked with Penumbra since the 1990s. Valuing your own takes work, he says, when all of the stores look the same across the country and culture is both flattened and splintered by social media. Local theaters could be a way for communities to rebuild root systems, he says, but that means valuing what many theaters don't.
JONES: It means you're not going to have that major brand label on it. Somebody didn't give it a five-star review, somebody didn't vet it and produce it six times before you produced it. It may be messy. It may be bloody. It may not yet have found its full footing. And for me, when I think back to the most vivid, exciting and life-changing art that I've experienced in the last 30 years, it has invariably been the art that is wild and alive like that.
ULABY: Wild and alive art will survive, he says. It will outlive TikTok. We just have to find it and each other.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHAROAH SANDERS SONG, "LOVE IS EVERYWHERE")
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