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Penumbra’s 2019-20 season declares a ‘State of Emergence’

Photo by Allen Weeks
James Craven and Dame Jasmine Hughes in Dominique Morriseau’s “Sunset Baby,” a Penumbra premiere in 2016.

At Penumbra Theatre, the play’s not the only thing. Producing plays is just part of what they do. A big part, and the most public part, but Penumbra is more than a theater. It’s a community center, a conscience, a keeper of history and a changemaker. Beyond what we see on each year’s mainstage season, Penumbra offers a full slate of events and services including education and outreach, race workshops, speakers, residencies and consultations on equity, diversity and inclusion.

The plays are an entree into what Penumbra does as a leading black theater in America. Its public programing also includes “Let’s Talk” conversations around issues of social justice, equity and the arts and “Reel Talk” film screenings.

Since Sarah Bellamy first moved into place to take over as artistic director from her father and Penumbra’s founder, Lou Bellamy, each new season has had a theme, an umbrella beneath which the plays and events are grouped. The theme for 2019-20 is “State of Emergence,” which “reminds us that justice is worthy of our attention, worthy of our labor, and worthy of risking ourselves.”

The new season – Penumbra’s 43rd – begins with new work by first-year students of Penumbra’s Summer Institute, its leadership development program for teens. Summer Institute: Awake will take place Friday, Aug. 3. On Monday, Sept. 16, a “Let’s Talk” conversation titled “Up From Emergency” will consider ways to re-center and focus in a time of deliberate distraction and confusion – and as we head into the 2020 election year. The season’s first play, Dominique Morrisseau’s “Pipeline,” will open Thursday, Oct. 3. Morrisseau is a MacArthur Fellow; this regional premiere will be her third Penumbra production following “Sunset Baby” (2016) and “Detroit ’67” (2015). Lou Bellamy will direct the play about a boy, his mother and a difficult choice: the discrimination of an elite private school or the dangers of the streets.

“Reel Talk” will launch Monday, Oct. 14, with “Wrestle,” a coming-of-age documentary about the wrestling team at a high school in Huntsville, Alabama, that has been on the state’s failing schools list for years. A “Let’s Talk” on Monday, Nov. 18, will be our introduction to the Ashe Lab, Penumbra’s new two-year interdisciplinary residency program for black artists supported by a $70,000 grant from the Jerome Foundation. “Possibly: Ideas from the Ashe Lab” will feature the inaugural cohort. Opening Thursday, Nov. 21, Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity” will end the year with joy, celebration and the Kingdom Life Church Choir. Lou Bellamy will direct.

Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, will bring a “Let’s Talk” screening of Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” which envisions the book James Baldwin never finished: a radical look at race in America that focuses on the murders of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. Perhaps the season’s most high-voltage event, Claudia Rankine’s new play “The White Card” will open Thursday, Feb. 6. Award-winning poet and MacArthur Fellow Rankine was at the Walker last week to talk about this play; Stephen Yoakam and Joy Dolo gave a reading of the second act. “The White Card” is a conversation between wealthy, influential white art collectors and a passionate young black artist. Productions elsewhere have included talkbacks – continuations of that conversation – and it’s reasonable to expect Penumbra’s will, too. Talvin Wilks will direct.

Monday, March 23, will bring “Becoming: New Work from the Ashe Lab,” an evening of work in progress. On Monday, April 6, Penumbra will screen “Charm City,” a candid portrait of Baltimore and those on the frontlines in a city rocked by violence. Thursday, April 23, will see the opening of award-winning playwright Trey Anthony’s “How Black Mothers Say I Love You,” about a mother who leaves her daughter in Jamaica to earn a living for her family in the U.S. Signe Harriday will direct. On Monday, May 11, the 2019-20 season will close with a “Let’s Talk” appropriately titled “Sankofa: Looking Back to Look Forward.”

Season subscriptions for the mainstage productions – “Pipeline,” “Black Nativity,” “The White Card” and “How Black Mothers Say I Love You” – will go on sale to the public on June 1 at 10 a.m. FMI; 641-224-3180. Meanwhile, the 2018-19 season continues with the regional premiere of Prince Gomolvilas’s “The Brothers Paranormal,” about two Thai brothers and a ghost-hunting business. Lou Bellamy is the director. Opens Thursday, May 2. FMI and tickets ($15-40).

The picks

Tonight (Tuesday, April 16) at the Ordway Concert Hall: Accordo with Silent Film. Composer, pianist and former SPCO artistic partner Stephen Prutsman returns with an annual event and audience favorite. For the fourth year in a row, the musicians of Accordo will perform Prutsman’s original scores to silent films, with Prutsman on piano and the films screening behind them. Tonight’s films are “The Dancing Pig” (1907), Georges Mékiuès’ “Journey to the Moon” (1902) and Buster Keaton’s “Sherlock Jr.” The musicians will also perform “Monir Farmanfarmaian” by Iranian composer Hoosyar Khayam. Tonight’s Accordo will be Ruggero Allifranchini and Stephen Copes on violin, Maya Papach on viola, Anthony Ross on cello and Alicia McQuerrey on flute. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($29-35.50).

A still from Georges Mékiuès’ “Journey to the Moon.”
BFI
A still from Georges Mékiuès’ “Journey to the Moon.”
Wednesday and Thursday at the Lab Theater: Liquid Music presents “Double Header: New Music & Dance Duos.” Liquid Music’s pairing of original music and dance – its most famous incarnation to date being Bon Iver and TU Dance’s massive hit “Come Through” – continues with two more commissions and world premieres. Half of the evening will feature award-winning composer and pianist Dustin O’Halloran (“Marie Antoinette,” “Lion,” “Transparent”) and choreographer/Company Wayne McGregor member Fukiko Takase. The other half will feature composer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Lewis (Happy Apple, Fat Kid Wednesdays, Bon Iver, Andrew Bird) and Sage Artist Eva Mohn (TU Dance, Cullberg Ballet, Johannes Wieland Dance). Brand-new everything. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($30; kids and students free).

Thursday at the American Swedish Institute: Comedy improv tour of “Imagine – Surreal Photography” by Erik Johansson. The Theater of Public Policy’s Tane Danger led a Q&A with Johansson at the exhibition preview party in January. And now for something completely different: an interactive tour of the exhibition with T2P2’s comedy improv troupe, with games and a free drink from FIKA. T2P2 is a smart group and it should be deeply interesting (and funny) to see what they do with Johansson’s wildly imaginative large-scale photographs, each literally something he dreamed up, than photographed, pieced together and perfected until it looks absolutely real. 7 p.m. FMI and registration ($30 ASI members, $35 everyone else).

What will T2P2 do with Erik Johansson’s “Fishy Island”?
Courtesy of the American Swedish Institute
What will T2P2 do with Erik Johansson’s “Fishy Island”?
Thursday at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival: “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool.” Released 60 years ago, Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” is still the best-selling jazz album of all time. Not one second sounds dated. Director Stanley Nelson’s documentary is a portrait of the influential, mercurial and controversial musician, warts and all. The narrator is Miles himself; Nelson used clips from his autobiography, written with Quincy Troupe. Includes interviews with luminaries (Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and more), previously unseen home movies and previously unheard music. Producer Nicole London will attend. See this if you don’t know Miles; see it if you do. 7:10 p.m. FMI including trailer and tickets ($15/11/8).

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