Lou Bellamy on Nat ‘King’ Cole, August Wilson and his company Penumbra Theatre
Director Lou Bellamy is back in Washington, and we had the chance to talk with him about, among other things, the great Nat ‘King’ Cole, because his Penumbra Theatre Company’s production of I Wish You Love has just opened at the Kennedy Center.
Bellamy is one of those people, old enough, durable enough and accomplished enough to be called legendary in his St. Paul, Minnesota environs. He has that great and expansive capacity to make specific tasks, projects and identity universal, identifiable and recognizable.
It’s what artists, painters, poets and playwrights do; it’s what August Wilson did. “He was my friend,” Bellamy said of the Pulitzer-Prize winning African American playwright who in his cycle of plays about African American life in the 20th-century created something universal. Race and history can keep people apart, but stories and words create the bonds that bind a group, and also reverberate in the common language and experience as recognition.
Music does that too, of course, and Nat ‘King’ Cole was a pathfinder when it comes to the crossing of bridges. “He was the first black musician-singer to come into the living rooms of all Americans every week,” Bellamy said. “That was a breakthrough, and it didn’t come easy.”
In 1956, the popular singer had his own show on national television, right at the time of the first strong beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement: the young Emmett Till had been brutally murdered, Rosa Parks had sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, Little Rock was coming, the Civil Rights Act was coming.
But everyone gathered around their sets to hear Cole’s music. “My dad and I, we watched the show together all the time,” he said. It was a shared experience across the nation. This writer recalled doing the same thing in a small town in Ohio, sitting with his German mother and Serbian stepfather.
I Wish You Love, which has star Dennis W. Spears singing 20 Cole hits, was created at Bellamy’s unique Penumbra Theatre Company in Minnesota, and written by Penumbra’s co-artistic director Dominic Taylor. It proved to be such a big hit that it will be returning next season, Nov 18 – Dec 4, 2011.
“Cole played classical music, he played jazz, he saw himself as a pianist,” Bellamy said. “He just started singing as a kind of addition in the 1940s. But when he started recording, all these great songs, memorable as all get out, became big hits.”
While there’s plenty of Cole hits to be heard in the show, this isn’t a musical cavalcade of Nat ‘King’ Cole’s greatest hits. It’s a Penumbra Theatre production with serious matters on its mind and, true to its calling ,of social consciousness. It places Cole squarely in his times, a cross-over artist who encountered racism on a regular basis. He sold almost as many records as Frank Sinatra, but, although he appeared in several films, he could never become a movie star of the kind that Sinatra became.
The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show was short-lived—only 67 episodes were made—and some attributed this to the lack of major commercial sponsorship. To which Bellamy, in an interview with Kerry McNally of the Minnesota CBS affiliate responded ” The show only lasted one year because advertisers wouldn’t support it. Nat ‘King’ Cole would later say, “Madison Avenue was afraid of the dark.” “He touched Peggy Lee, Nat did, and so he’s getting ready to lose a sponsor, before he escorted her, sort of, to a chair and that was enough to lose a sponsor.”
Cole was low-key in his approach to civil rights—although a lifetime member of the NAACP, he was not what could be called a political activist, nor was he a cutting edge musician in terms of his songs. What he was was a visible presence whose very position on the national television scene heartened African Americans and was an affront to racists.
Bellamy is a man of the theatre, but of a very specific kind of theatre, one that concentrates on the African American experience. Penumbra experiences the same challenges, the same struggles experience by any regional theatre, only more so.
“Regional theatre is tough, let me tell you,” he said. “You have to have the right sort of board, supportive and active. You have to do the fund-raising, you have to cajole and get people to help you and you have to balance the usual things—the money and the art, the mission vs. getting people to come to the theater.”
Bellamy is the founder of Penumbra, going back to 1976, with a mission of making “socially responsible art—art that demanded a response, art with intent, art that could create change.” According to the Penumbra Web site, it presents “artistically excellent productions that depict emotional, relevant and valuable experiences from an African American experience.”
“Like anywhere else, that wasn’t easy,” he said. “There were some tough times, and we had competition for audiences, like everyone else, like the Guthrie.” Some of those tough times must have occurred during the first two years of the 1980s when only two productions were mounted.
“I think everyone’s going through difficult times now because it’s a hard economy and that’s going to affect the arts,” he said. “I think you see a lot more cooperation, joint projects, a sharing of ideas among regional theaters all across the country,” he said. “That’s where the action is, where new plays come from now. “ I Wish You Love is an example of that. It was developed in partnership with the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays.
He recalls Washington with fondness— Penumbra co-produced Redshirts by Dana Yeats with Round House Theatre in 2007, and brought a staged reading of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom to the Kennedy Center’s project August Wilson: 20th Century in 2008.
“He was my friend and he did a lot of his best work here in Minnesota,” Bellamy said, speaking of August Wilson. “This company has performed more of his plays than any other company. I’ve directed them, I’ve performed in them.” In 1982, Penumbra gave Wilson his first professional production Black Bart and the Sacred Hills. “August had a quality,” he added. “He had this terrific humility, he never stopped losing interest. You know, we’d bring him around to fundraisers, things like that, and I’d turned around, and there he was in the hall or the lobby or outside, talking to a cabbie, a barber, some guy that stopped him for an autograph.”
Talking is, of course, exactly what Wilson was about. Taken together, his plays offered a social, cultural history of life for African Americans, time-specific, plot-specific, character-specific and place-specific. “But the talk was always there,” Bellamy said. “It was authentic, it was poetic, and it was stories, after stories. The talk in the diner which was the setting for Two Trains Running was story-telling, a kind of music.”
It’s obvious that American audiences in general found the universal in Wilson’s plays. “In his time, which was his time at Penumbra, he was hugely important to the culture. He loved watching his own plays. He was very much a part of our community.”
“I would say actors love his plays because of the monologues and the stories,” he said. Bellamy himself acted the lead role of the embittered, violent baseball pro baseball player, Troy, in Fences. “Don’t let anybody tell you different,” Bellamy said. “The part gets into you; you sort of live it for the duration. My wife told me she was glad when the run was over. She said I was coming home like Troy.”
If you look at the production lists for the period of Penumbra’s existence, you see the struggles that are characteristic of all theater companies, but also of a company that gears to a specific audience and subject. Somewhere in there, there will be an Ain’t Misbehavin’ and an interpretation of the African American Christmas show Black Nativity: Now’s the Time, and then will come the new gems – not just Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean but also a play called Generations of the Dead in the Abyss of Coney Island Madness.
In an interview with Julie Berg-Raymond of Decorah Newspaper, Bellamy said “theatre is the way I exercise my citizenship, it’s the way I interact with my community.”
It’s the way he interacts with everybody.
If, as he says, being in the theater as teacher—he just retired from his teaching position at the University of Minnesota—and producer, artistic director and director of Penumbra is an act of citizenship, then Bellamy is a very good citizen indeed.
Here’s to Citizen Bellamy, one of the first and honored citizens of the country of theater, which is the country of our selves.