Voices of DiversityPage address: https://www.mnsu.edu/diversity/commission/loubellamy.html
The Power in One Good Life: Lou Bellamy
By Heidi Sampson
Theatre was not a factor in Lou Bellamy’s career goals as an undergraduate of Psychology and Sociology, at Minnesota State University, during the 1960’s. At least not until Dr. Theodore “Ted” Paul, Director of the Theatre and Dance department, decided to go door-to-door through McElroy in search of African American recruits for his upcoming play entitled, Finian’s Rainbow.
“In the 60’s, this campus was not as diversified as it is now,” said Bellamy, guest director of Crumbs from the Table of Joy. “There were maybe four or five African American students on campus and Doc didn’t want to perform 'Finian’s Rainbow' in black face, bless his heart. So he came up to McElroy and sort of drafted us for roles within his play.”
Finian’s Rainbow was a musical production that featured a man named Finian who moved to the United States from Ireland with his daughter, to bury a stolen pot of gold with the mistaken belief that it would grow. To complicate matters, a leprechaun follows Finian to America, intent on reclaiming his gold while a corrupt senator, who makes no effort to conceal his racial bigotry, ends up accidently becoming black temporarily.
By the time Finian’s Rainbow was completed, “I began to recognize the power of theatre. As a medium, theatre has the power to build community by bringing people together, to criticize, comment and educate society,” said Bellamy. “Theatre can explore ways to work toward social justice and it all began while I was here. I just didn’t know it at the time.”
While Bellamy finished his degrees, he continued to perform under Dr. Paul’s direction in theatrical productions like John’s Brown Body, a musical about the abolitionist John Brown, and In White America. A historical play that provided a sweeping overview of how racism affected both blacks and whites from colonial times to the immediate aftermath of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. Bellamy remembers reading somewhere that Dr. Paul’s performances were considered entertaining. However, looking back on the political upheaval of the 1960’s, Dr. Paul’s choices in theatrical productions tended to comment on the Civil Rights Movement, which was in full swing.
“Doc was doing theater that challenged the community and not only the college community, but the local community as well,” said Bellamy. “I just can’t believe that he didn’t have some sort of meter or metric within, something that made him want to engage social justice issues because he chose too many plays that did.”
After Bellamy’s undergraduate was complete, Bellamy pursued a Master of Arts degree within theatre, from the University of Minnesota. In 1976, Bellamy founded Penumbra Theatre, when the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center of St. Paul, received a $150,000 CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) grant from the United States government. The money was designed to employ the unemployed. Hallie Q. Brown hired Bellamy to administer the grant.
“Due to some forward thinking people, the community center already had a place where theatrical arts could happen,” said Bellamy. “I came in and hired twenty actors and some technical people. We began producing plays and touring that very first year.”
Dr. Paul’s earlier influence would embolden Bellamy as he started Penumbra Theatre, a theatre whose primary goal would be to produce a culturally based theatrical experience with a social justice mission or theme. Bellamy wanted to tell the African American story in a way that wasn’t being told on the larger twin cities stages. At that time, the African American life was primarily portrayed through a Eurocentric perception, which led to a one dimensional view of African American culture.
“For as much as they might have wanted to tell the truth,” said Bellamy, “they could only tell the truth as much as they could see. The African American culture is meant to sort of obfuscate in many ways. I always think of the poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, ‘We wear the mask that grins and lies / it hides our cheeks and shades our eyes. . . let them only see us, while / we wear the mask.’ I knew there was more to our life that wasn’t being portrayed and I wanted to tell whole stories about whole people.”
During the early days of Penumbra Theatre, there were some difficulties that arose not only with the community at large, but also with the African American community, who didn’t necessarily want their stories told in the presence of non-African Americans. However, as Penumbra developed its mission toward increasing public awareness of the significant contributions of African Americans, it also created a diversified American theatrical tradition that became all-inclusive, by using theatre to teach, criticize, and comment on society.
“I want to give black people agency,” said Bellamy. “I want to advocate for social justice. I want a better world. What we ended up finding out through the creation of Penumbra, was that when we told our stories with truth, authenticity, and careful attention to nuance, detail and cultural specify, they became universal.”
In 1979, Bellamy began to work for the University of Minnesota, within the department of Theatre and Dance, while he continued his artistic directing at Penumbra. By 1994, he became an Associate Professor of Theatre. Bellamy taught classes on the history of "African Americans in American Theatre" and "Contemporary Black Theatre," as well as courses in acting, directing and oral communication. In 2011, Bellamy retired from his position with the University. Bellamy has earned many awards for his talents as a director. One particular award was the OBIE award, which is similar to that of Broadway’s Tony Award for off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway productions.
Dr. Paul Hustoles, Director and Department Chair of Minnesota State University’s Theatre and Dance, asked Bellamy to interact with the students by directing a play that would challenge and yet, showcase their abilities. During the fall of 2012, Bellamy was invited down for general auditions. After his visit, Bellamy realized Crumbs from the Table of Joy, was a perfect fit for Minnesota State University’s theatrical students. The play is told through the eyes of Godfrey’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Ernestine Crumb. Godfrey, who is recently widowed, moves his family from Florida to Brooklyn for a better life. Not knowing how to parent, Godfrey turns to religion for his answers. The girls absorb their new surroundings but not necessarily their father's religion. As the racial and social issues of the late 1950’s escalate, personal issues between Godfrey and Lily, his sister-in-law, explode.
“In this play the aunt shows up,” said Bellamy, “which is usually always the link to the outside world. When Lily shows up, she is this free-thinking woman. She’s radical, a feminist, a communist and she refuses to be married. It’s up for grabs how successful her life becomes because society doesn’t provide for women who think that way. Society wants to fit them all in a mold. Lily suffers mightily for her views but she influences these girls through her behavior. They grow as a result of their encounter with her.”
Today, Penumbra Theatre is in the process of shifting to Bellamy’s daughter, Sarah Bellamy. Sarah has taken Penumbra’s ideas surrounding social justice and expanded that to include more direct education within its objectives. For instance, Sarah heads up the “Summer Art Institute: Training the Next Generation of Activists Artists,” which is a three year leadership development program that trains teenagers to use their passion for the arts to promote social justice and equity.
Lou Bellamy realizes that in looking back on his career, one might gather the idea that he had meticulously planned its trajectory but that couldn’t be further from the truth. For Bellamy, his success has been in part due to the people who have entered his life, altering it for the better through their acts of kindness and mentorship. People like Dr. Ted Paul, whose simple knock on a McElroy dorm door opened up a whole new career path.
“You know, you just don’t know if what you are doing is going to work,” said Bellamy. “You just can’t see out that far out. I’ve learned to listen to my heart and to do what my heart tells me to do. When I was an undergrad in Psychology and Sociology, a lot of the students wanted to go to places like Detroit to change the world and that’s fine. But I’ve learned to recognize the extreme power in one good life. You can live a good life in Mankato and still change the world.”
If you want to go:
Crumbs from the Table of Joy
November 7th - 9th & 14th - 17th
In the Ted Paul Theatre
For more information on Lou Bellamy:
MNSU Department of Theatre and Dance:
On Stage Interview with Lou Bellamy
Photo Description: "I've got somethin' for my babies," says Godfrey (Reginald D. Haney) as his daughters, Ermina (Kristin Marie Ambrose, left) and Ernestine (Gabrielle Chavers) come to check it out.
Photos are compliments of Minnesota State University's Department of Theatre and Dance.