September 7, 2012, 2:59 PMBy FELICIA R. LEE
Penumbra Theater in St. Paul, Minn.,which describes itself as the country’s largest African-American theater, has announced that it is suspending programming this season until it can resolve a severe budget crunch.
The theater, founded in 1976 and long a home for artists like Danny Glover and August Wilson, has laid off six of its 16 full-time employees and cut $800,000 from its $2.7 million budget. It is now tapping board members, donors, and artists across the country to help raise $340,000 by the end of the year so it can close the shortfall and produce “Spunk,” George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of stories by Zora Neale Hurston next March, its lone offering for the season. (The theater typically puts on between three and five shows.)
“If this is happening to us it is the canary in the coal mine,” Lou Bellamy, Penumbra’s founder and artistic director, said in an interview Friday of the challenges facing black theater companies. “We’ve done more of August Wilson’s work than any theater in the world. It would be such a shame if this knowledge and talent is let go. It’s a repository of culture and history that is sorely lacking in the black community.”
But Mr. Bellamy, who is also a noted director, acknowledged that Penumbra had been undercapitalized for a number of years, a situation that only worsened with the fiscal crisis of 2008. “Around the end of July it became evident we had a real cash problem,” he said. “Grants that normally came in at $75,000 are coming in at $50,000 and donations that might be coming in at $1,000 are coming in at $600 and $700. That added up to a crunch.”
Penumbra has faced hard times before. In the 2003-2004 season, one production was postponed, the staff was cut by half, and some $500,000 was trimmed from a $1.8 million budget.
Other black theater companies have struggled as well. Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick, N.J. is back on its feet after suspending production for a time. The National Black Theater, which was embroiled in financial disputes that endangered its future, resolved its problems in June. Classical Theater of Harlem had its first full-scale production last August after nearly two years, since its founders departed after friction with the board.
“He’s not alone – it’s all over the country,” Joe Dowling, the artistic director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, said of the predicament Mr. Bellamy and his theater are facing. “There’s a definite contraction of foundation and individual support that has caught up with them.”
Exacerbating Penumbra’s problems, he said, has been its reliance on a 250-seat theater located within a community center. A recent collaboration with the Guthrie has allowed Penumbra to present some of its plays in much larger spaces; James Baldwin’s “Amen Corner” played at the Guthrie’s largest theater, seating 1,100, this spring.
Mr. Dowling predicted that Penumbra’s special place in the “theater community ecosystem” in the Twin Cities will keep it going. “The community will rally around them,” he said. “I have no doubt they will raise the money to do the play they want to do in the spring.”