For Penumbra Theatre’s 41st season, Artistic Director Sarah Bellamy wants us to look closely and think hard about interracial relationships. Her theme for 2017-18 is “Crossing Lines”: What happens when the boundlessness of love meets the boundaries of our identities? How can we move beyond the barriers of our skin toward the beating of our hearts?
Sarah organizes seasons around themes. It’s one way in which she diverges from her father and Penumbra founder, Lou Bellamy, with whom she shared the artistic director role for four years. It’s officially hers now.
In a conversation about Penumbra last week at the History Center, moderated by the Star Tribune’s Rohan Preston, Sarah explained, “We discovered very early on that we have different approaches to curating a season. Lou always told me, ‘Go find the best plays, figure out what the through line is and put it together.’ I am more interested in finding a theme that unites a season, so people can have a yearlong exploration of an idea.
Opportunities for exploring go beyond the mainstage plays. Penumbra will continue its “Let’s Talk” series of community conversations and its “Reel Talk” series of free film screenings and conversations, both begun by Sarah to bring people to the theater more often. “I also listened to Lou talk about what that space is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be a space where people can come and grapple with issues in a safe, compassionate but challenging way. … When you can produce four plays a year because of the budget, it’s like, how else can we bring the community here?”
“I always viewed the drama, the play, as the opening gambit in a conversation with the community,” Lou said. “That was just the first step. I never formalized all of that interaction in the way [Sarah] has done.”
This year’s “Let’s Talk” topics will include racial identity development, colorblind casting, transracial adoption and “My America,” a look at our nation at a critical crossroads. The “Reel Talk” films are “Loving,” about an interracial couple sentenced to prison for getting married; “Little White Lies,” a documentary about family secrets; “One Drop Rule,” a look at race and the complexities of color; and “Dear White People,” a comedy-drama about a college student who gets real on the radio about racism.
During Black History Month (Feb. 2018), Penumbra will host a series of family-friendly “Sunday Suppers,” communal dinners featuring readings of classic black plays. Later that month, the public will be invited to one of Penumbra’s RACE Workshops to explore race and identity using the tools of theater.
The 2016-17 season was four plays, starting with a stellar production of August Wilson’s “Jitney” and ending with the Penumbra-commissioned musical “Girl Shakes Loose,” on now through May 14. The 2017-18 season has more going on, including a big collaboration with a first-time partner.
Oct. 19-Nov. 12: “Wedding Band: A Love-Hate Story in Black and White” by Alice Childress. Lou Bellamy directs Penumbra’s first production of a 1962 classic from the Black Arts Movement.
Nov. 30-Dec. 24: “Black Nativity.” Lou Bellamy directs the holiday favorite by Langston Hughes, with musical direction by Sanford Moore, choreography by Uri Sands of TU Dance, and the Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church Choir.
Jan. 23-March 18, 2018: “The Wiz.” Penumbra partners with the Children’s Theatre Company for the beloved musical based on L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” Lou Bellamy directs, Sanford Moore is musical director, Patdro Harris is choreographer and we know (from CTC’s earlier announcement) that the cast includes “American Idol” alum Paris Bennett as Dorothy. “The Wiz” will be staged at CTC.
Jan. 25-28: Roger Guenveur Smith, who brought a fierce and unforgettable “Rodney King” to Penumbra in 2015, returns with “Frederick Douglass NOW” as part of the theater’s annual Claude Edison Purdy Festival, named for one of its founding members.
Feb. 8-18: “Joy Rebel.” The Claude Edison Purdy Festival continues with the world premiere of Khanisha Foster’s play about multiracial identity.
April 26-May 20: “This Bitter Earth.” Talvin Wilks directs the regional premiere of Harrison David Rivers’ play about an interracial gay couple contending with the politics of their love.
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Tonight (Tuesday, May 2) at the Southern: Candy Box. Mathew Janczewski’s ARENA DANCES is sharing a residency at the Southern with two other dance companies and several choreographers. Tonight at 7 p.m., Robin Stiehm’s Dancing People Company will perform four dances linked by yearning for human connection. At 8:30 p.m., ARENA will perform “Picturing That Day,” inspired by cruise ship entertainment with art by Jim Hodges and music of George Gershwin and Irving Berlin. The evening will begin with a 5 p.m. Happy Hour work-in-progress performance by Jensen Dance. FMI and tickets (one show or both; includes Pick Your Price options; ARTshare members free). Happy Hour is a suggested donation.
Wednesday at the Dakota: Regina Carter: Simply Ella. Carter has been someone to follow since the mid-1990s, when she started recording as a leader. Arguably the finest jazz violinist of her generation – and a 2006 MacArthur fellow – she follows her heart and digs deeply into wherever it leads, whether it’s to the music of Detroit, her hometown; Niccolo Paganini’s Guarneri violin (she was the first jazz musician and African-American to play that priceless instrument); music of the African diaspora; or, most recently, the extensive and varied catalog of the great jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, whose 100th birthday it is this year. Carter has said that Fitzgerald’s music “makes me feel love when I hear it,” and that’s how we feel when we hear Carter play. Touring behind her latest release, “Ella: Accentuate the Positive,” which looks beyond the obvious hits to lesser-known gems, she’s traveling with her own band: Alvester Garnett on drums, Marvin Sewell on guitar, Chris Lightcap on bass and Xavier Davis on keys. 7 and 9 p.m. FMI and tickets ($25-40).
Wednesday and Thursday at Crooners: Randy Brecker. Trailing six Grammys, the tireless and versatile trumpeter/flugelhornist/composer will move into the Dunsmore Room for two nights and four sets. His far-ranging career to date has included gigs and recording with Clark Terry; James Taylor; Blood, Sweat and Tears; Horace Silver; Bruce Springsteen; Larry Coryell; Parliament/Funkadelic; Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers; Stevie Wonder; Poland’s Bialystok Philharmonic. and his late beloved brother, tenor saxophonist Michael, who died of leukemia in 2007. Brecker’s band here will include pianist Tanner Taylor, who now lives in Iowa, and area masters Gordy Johnson on bass and Phil Hey on drums. This is a big deal for the little Dunsmore, which keeps raising its own bar. 7 and 9 p.m. both nights. FMI and tickets ($15-30; $60 dinner show).
Thursday at Common Good Books: “Riding Shotgun: Women Write About Their Mothers.” Jonis Agee, Morgan Grayce Willow, Ka Vang, Shannon Olson and Kathryn Kysar are among the accomplished contributors to this book about moms and mother-daughter relationships. Published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, it’s now in paperback, so you can buy one for you and one for Mom, because Mother’s Day is just around the corner (May 14). 7 p.m. Free.
Thursday at the U’s Continuing Education and Conference Center: Headliners: Patricia Hampl: “The Art of the Wasted Day.” Award-winning author Hampl thinks we should all slow down. She has been writing about slowness and the life of the mind since “Virgin Time: In Search of the Contemplative Life” and has followed those threads through “A Romantic Education,” “Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime” and now “The Art of the Wasted Day,” an ode to idleness, due out later this year. She’ll give us a sneak peek as she closes out the 2016-17 Headliners season. 7 p.m. FMI and tickets ($20).
Now at the History Theatre: “Sweet Land, the Musical.” What began as a short story by Will Weaver (“A Gravestone Made of Wheat”) and became an acclaimed indie film is now a musical having its world premiere at the History Theatre. Every immigrant story seems current these days, no matter when in time it is set, and this one tells of a young German woman who comes to Minnesota to marry a bachelor farmer post-World War I, when anti-German sentiments still run hot, and has a tough time. Ann Michels is Inge Altenberg, Robert Berdahl is Olaf Torvik in a show created and led by women. Perrin Post wrote the book and directs; Dina Maccabee composed the music; Laurie Flanigan Hegge penned the lyrics. FMI and tickets ($25-$52). Thursdays-Sundays through May 28.