Listen: Lou Bellamy on Penumbra play The Mighty Gents and Dutchman

MPR’s Bruce MacDonald talks with Lou Bellamy, artistic director at Penumbra Theatre, about productions of "The Mighty Gents" and "Dutchman." Bellamy compares the subject matter of plays to the angry unrest after Rodney King trial acquittals. Bellamy also shares his personal thoughts.


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LOU BELLAMY: Mighty Gents is sort of a slice of life. A portrait of some young men trying to live in an urban environment and the vicissitudes of their life in that environment. It comes into contact with racism only in the sort of indirect way that these men are trapped where they are.

The Dutchman represents another reaction to a life in this urban environment for Black folk. And that takes place on a subway. And there's a White woman and a Black male who meet on the subway. And he is sort of wooed and so forth by all of the things that society can give this man. But he has to sacrifice a little bit to do so.

SPEAKER: Are these plays, are these new plays?

LOU BELLAMY: No. They're very old, as a matter of fact. Mighty Gents I think was written in 1974. The Dutchman is older even still. It was written in 1964, or at least performed first in 1964. What strikes me, and the reason we do these classics, is it acts sort of as a barometer for us and lets us know where we've come or where we haven't come unfortunately. And these two plays point to that I think quite powerfully.

SPEAKER: Let's bring this in a little bit and connect it with some of the current events that we've seen. In the past half year or so, your theater, the Penumbra Theater, has presented plays that look at police brutality toward Blacks, at rioting and killing that followed Martin Luther King's assassination and at hopelessness and despair in one African American family. The events of the past few weeks, of course, in Los Angeles and indeed across the country seem to make some of the things you've been doing at Penumbra appear a bit prescient. You're a half a step ahead.

LOU BELLAMY: Well, really what we're seeing is the same things that we have been seeing. And that's one of the conundrums with which the United States will have to deal in that there have been good people, smart people, as these plays demonstrate, 1964, been letting us know that we have a problem. That there are things wrong, that there are terrible inequities, and they make for loss of all sorts of initiative and all sorts of terrible things. But we haven't listened very well.

And I think those what some want to call riots and what my friend Mahmoud El-Kati calls insurrections are somehow related to the frustration and the lack-- well, the general ennui that a group of people are feeling. Richard Wright said it, I mean, years, years ago, that these bigger Thomases, these people that are a result of this system are natural and inevitable results of a warped society. Natural and inevitable. And so these folks have been saying in a long time.

Now what art allows us to do is to comment on that and hopefully bring it into focus those kinds of things. And that's what we see ourself doing. I changed the plays that we were going to do. We were going to do another play as the final play of the season. And it just didn't seem quite strident enough for me. It didn't reflect the horribleness of the times.

I had no idea that this insurrection was going to begin, but I knew that times were bad and have been for a degree of time. I mean, I teach at the university, in the general college. I see young people, I see freshmen and sophomores and watch them weep over where they find themselves today. And it's terribly unfortunate. We have been told is all I'm saying.

SPEAKER: Well, I'm wondering, in light of the recent events, do you expect at all an increase in the audience for this kind of material as people try to out what actually happened?

LOU BELLAMY: Well, indeed, that's happening. And it's unfortunate that that's what it may take to bring them to the theater to begin to work out some of those issues. But I'm glad that we're there to do that. And that's exactly why you need a Black theater as part of a community, because it can focus those issues. It can bring them to the fore in ways that no one else is quite able to do because this community and that theater has a stake in it.

Many of the ills and horrible things under which we suffer are due to misperceptions about that community. And the only way those perceptions can be realized is by the people themselves. So I'm glad that we're in a position to do it, and our community is inherently capable of gratifying its own needs.

SPEAKER: How would you characterize your audience thus far? Is it primarily a Black audience? Primarily a White audience?

LOU BELLAMY: Well, our audience is typically primarily a White audience because we're in Minnesota. It's primarily a White state. Our audiences run about 80% White, if you will. And I don't want to lump all those people together, but as I view them, that's about what it looks like. That hasn't changed significantly. These are people who want to experience, who want to explore and understand some things that are plaguing all of us right now, these problems.

SPEAKER: In light of the Rodney King verdict and the aftermath, you described The Mighty Gents as speaking to the hopelessness in Black communities and Dutchman as speaking to the cancer. I wonder if you could expand on that. Tell me a little bit more about what you meant by that.

LOU BELLAMY: Well, I'm sort of misquoted there in that Marion McClinton said that.


LOU BELLAMY: But I know what he meant. I think I do. The hopelessness. I think what we find is too many roads cut off. Too many dead ends for people. So they begin to practice capitalism any way they possibly can. That's the American way. And that leads them into, as Malcolm X said, the only kind of perhaps graft and other things that White hoodlums haven't already taken over. And this play begins to speak about that, that just absolute hopelessness that ends up turning individuals on themselves because of, I think, lack of hope.

The Dutchman is another interesting problem because this guy, this Black man, has pasted all of his green stamps in his books and nice straight lines. He's gone to a college. He's graduated or graduating. He is very intelligent. And in so doing, he has unwittingly sort of given up his African American aesthetic and taken on a European one. And that in itself makes him vulnerable. And it's an interesting study.

And it also shows that there aren't any quick fixes. If Baraka was looking at this in 1964 and bringing it to question, and it's still horribly relevant at this minute. It says that we haven't come very far. We haven't done very much.

SPEAKER: Lou, I wonder if I could ask you about your own personal reaction to what happened in LA and those of some of the people you work with.

LOU BELLAMY: Well, it's interesting for many reasons. When we first heard, we were in rehearsal. And Rick Thompson, our general manager, called and said that the verdict had been rendered and that the policemen were let free, acquitted. Everyone seemed to be just stunned.

There was again that blankness. If you see these shows and you look at these men in Mighty Gents, I've blocked them to be downstage and looking at the audience a lot. And there's a vacant that you can see in their eyes. And that's what I saw that evening. It was that suddenly, these people felt they didn't have any stake in their country anymore, that they weren't protected by it, that they were indeed victims of it. Now, we know that as Black people. We live it daily. You don't get it so in such a salient fashion, in such a broad statement that is before the world. And it's sobering for your country to tell you that.

SPEAKER: We see today that Laurence Powell, one of the four officers, is apparently going to go through a second trial now. I'm wondering if you think that the country is going to go through some of the very sharp, as you call it, insurrections again, or whether the catharsis has occurred now.

LOU BELLAMY: Well, I'm more concerned about the lesson that we're giving to young people and to our fellow citizens. It's true that we see reactions. I see our governors talking about-- we hear enterprise zones from the president, and the governor is going to make some contracts available.

Well, what that says to people I think, being an amateur psychologist, is that if you go out and act in this sort of way, this is what it takes in order to make someone listen to you. It's unfortunate that we haven't come far enough along so that we can talk, and negotiate, and work out these kinds of things. And that's what frightens me because what we're telling people is this is what you must do to be able to be heard. And that's a bad message.


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