Laurie Carlos and Lou Bellamy on Penumbra-Walker collaboration "White Chocolate"

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Listen: Laurie Carlos and Lou Bellamy on Penumbra-Walker collaboration White Chocolate

MPR’s Beth Friend talks with playwright Laurie Carlos and director Lou Bellamy on the Penumbra-Walker collaboration of Carlo’s "White Chocolate For My Father."


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LAURIE CARLOS: My vision has always, always been a work to come to a Black or a non-white community or to be in an integrated community. Unfortunately, that has not happened up until maybe-- the doors are beginning to open a little bit. And I just naturally needed to have both Lou and John.

SPEAKER: You're talking about John Killacky at the Walker?

LAURIE CARLOS: John Killacky at the Walker together. It has been an incredibly wonderful experience for me as an artist to be supported so profoundly and so clearly by both these gentlemen. And I think that this kind of collaboration could go on and on and on in the support of new kinds of work and old work in terms of really stable institutions all around the country, of which Walker and Penumbra are both very stable institutions.

SPEAKER: Now, why hasn't your work been on stages like Penumbra or in Black forums before?

LAURIE CARLOS: I think Black theaters have to struggle. And so they have to stay calm, sort of safe, and know that certain things they can sell them. And the work is controversial. It is very controversial. I don't apologize for that. That's just what we're doing now.

And I come not only with my own voice, but I come with the voice of a number of people at this point in time. I come with a big group of girls. And we're here and we're talking and we're creating this work. And it warms me enormously to be able to go to someplace like National Black Arts Festival or to come to Penumbra and have the doors opened up. That is a really wonderful experience for me.

SPEAKER: Now, is that true, Lou, that this opening up of Penumbra's doors and other doors in the Black community, that that's new for Black women performance artists?

LOU BELLAMY: I don't think that it's necessarily new. I think that historically women have gotten their say and their work out in some other kinds of ways. Many of the early plays that I know written by Black women writers were published in things like The Birth Control Review and stuff like that. So that doesn't surprise me. But our raison d'etre, our reason for being at Penumbra, is to first do excellent Black theater and to show the depth and breadth of the African American experience.

Now, how can one do that unless one allows some playing by a person like Laurie and some of the people she's working with. What this does is it mushrooms, it grows, it balloons. One of Laurie's-- a woman she's published with, Robbie McCauley, will be coming in directing a show in the next season, the season that we're opening right now. So I'm thrilled because Laurie's gotten me into a network now of women who I believe have their finger right on the pulse of what's happening. And I feel thrilled to be able to be a conduit in this area and let us plug into that.

SPEAKER: With your opening the doors at Penumbra and bringing you in, Laurie, and Robbie McCauley, is this happening across the country for you? Is your choice of venues broadening?

LAURIE CARLOS: Yes, it is. Being supported by National Black Arts Festival every single year they've gone, they've had a festival, Stephanie [? Huley ?] has had us there. And so a lot of people from all over the country have come to see the work. [? Audelco ?] has been supportive, Vivian. And so the doors are opening. They really are opening. And it's really great to go home, to come home. It's really nice to come home.

LOU BELLAMY: And, you know, Beth, I mean, we in Minnesota don't, I think, understand perhaps the import that Penumbra can have nationwide as well. Through attrition, for lots of other reasons, Black theater is on the decline in the United States right now. We've lost some of the stalwarts.

SPEAKER: Such as?

LOU BELLAMY: Such as NEC, Henry Street. When I produce something like this and enter into an artistic collaboration with Laurie, that says that we have a season, we're putting everything on the line with it, we believe in it. And that's a demonstration for all the other theaters who may have been afraid, for one reason or another.

They call, after you read down there at the Black Arts Festival, when you read the play, they're calling here saying, you're doing this play with Laurie Carlos? Yes, we are. And are people coming? Yes, we're sold out or almost. And that's good to let them see that, because this isn't as big a chance as people would have you believe. Putting up a play like this is not a chance. It's good theater, and people will come see good theater.

SPEAKER: So it's just mistakenly perceived as risky business.

LOU BELLAMY: I believe that.

LAURIE CARLOS: Because we are working in a new form. We're defining a form. A lot of the writers that I'm working with, and dancers, urban Bush women, Robbie and Jessica Hagedorn, Aishah Rahman, we're creating another form. And what is a Eurocentric, linear way of speaking about the world is not the way that we speak about it. It's not the way we feel. It's not the way we see it. And it's definitely not the way I feel theater. I feel theater in another way altogether. So it's important to be able to have those collaborations made cross culturally, cross town, cross the bridge.

SPEAKER: So Lou Bellamy, will there be more Penumbra Theater collaborations with other Twin Cities institutions? Is this just the beginning?

LOU BELLAMY: Yes, sure. First we had to define ourselves and be very, very sure about what that is. And now we're trying to do some things that we need some help in doing. There are large, artistic organizations in the state that reach thousands and thousands of people.

And if we can help them begin to talk about a truth that includes all sorts of folk, then I think we're being good citizens, both art and art wise and civically. That's what we should be about doing, about finding that truth. And I've made it my business to study this Black literature created for the stage. That's what I know. That's what I do. And I want as many people here to partake in that as possible. So I see more of that.

SPEAKER: It also seems to me just in terms of dollars and cents, a practical way to go about it. I mean, it's a real sharing of the resources as opposed to individual arts institutions fighting so ferociously each on their own to survive.

LOU BELLAMY: I think it offers that opportunity. Still, I will have my voice and I will have it with other people in collaborations or without them, much like the way Laurie has done it already. Now she's in. She knows that may not be, but that's the risk we run. We've got to go ahead and tell it like it is and let the chips fall where they may.

SPEAKER: Lou Bellamy, Laurie Carlos, thank you.



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