Take a Look Behind the Scenes at St. Paul’s Storied Penumbra Theatre

December 9, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
In Minnesota, St. Paul's Penumbra Theatre Company is putting on a production of "I Wish You Love," on the life and times of Nat King Cole. Twin Cities Public Television takes a look behind the scenes of the production and the company's history of fighting marginalization and producing productions to raise social consciousness.

MAN: You got — you got props. You got your coat and everything?

MAN: Yes, he got the coat and everything.

MAN: OK. All right. All right.  We’re in, I think, the middle of the third week of rehearsal. So people are just getting off book — hopefully, not offline.

MAN: What does that mean, you maried?

MAN: Ladies love it.

MAN: Oh, you don’t think I know how it works with the ladies and money?

MAN: They’re starting to create character and put together all the pieces.

MAN: You could send them anything. They just happy something is sent, that’s all. You going to give them something that’s cut and dying. That don’t make no sense. Man, you could send a woman a box of pencils, and she’d be happy, ‘cause you sent her something.


MAN: The name Penumbra began when we began the company in 1976. I knew that I wanted our program to be professional. We were a program of the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center. You got to remember, at this time we weren’t able to get state arts board funding because they said we were doing social service, not art.

MAN: See, then, you carry that right off into flowers.

MAN: Right.

MAN: Look, they are magical. You — I don’t know, yes, yes. Yes.

MAN: Penumbra is a Latin term that means partial shadow. It’s that place that an artist has to go to create that world that is neither light nor dark. It also sort of symbolized the marginalization of the culture and all that sort of stuff. These are all afterthoughts. It was fun to say, “penumbra,” you know. It’s a fun word to say, yes.

MAN: Hey, there’s a card. What it say?

MAN: What it say?

MAN: It’s from the NAACP, and they say, “Mr. Cole (ph), thank you for your positive image of Negro America, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.” Whoo!

MAN: The project that we’re working on right now is a play called “I Wish You Love.” It’s written by Dominic Taylor.

MAN: Call down there (inaudible). Better yet, have one of the NBC execs call down there and tell them that my nephew’s missing.

MAN: What Dominic has put together here is not so much about Nat Cole — although there are 22 songs in the performance.

MAN: Five, four, three, two…

MAN: It happens during his television show, and you get him doing his show — actually there will be a television camera in the back of the house, and they’ll shoot him doing the show.

MAN: (inaudible) Nat King Cole.

MAN (singing): In the evening may I…

MAN: But when the show goes down, when they break for a commercial, you’ll also see commercials. And then you’ll see the actors and producers interacting about life, about what’s going on in the world, because it’s — there are newsclips in there as well.

MAN: While he was the governor of South Carolina during the Second World War, he told Harry Truman, and I quote, “I want to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation…”

MAN: This is 1957. So the Civil Rights Movement is hot and people are being challenged in all sorts of ways. America is being asked to live up to its promise and, in many cases, it’s beating people down for — and killing them, threatening them, lynching them, to do it.

So all of these things, this suave black male crooner is doing his stuff, while at the same time, you break and go to a newscast and little children are being pushed around as they’re trying to go to school in first grade. I mean, the comparison is — well, it’s striking.

MAN: They needed (inaudible) in office.

MAN: Them cops think we should still be in a field somewhere.

MAN: Knocked the hate off my head, then it was on, I guess.

MAN: There’s a real social justice, social consciousness, part of the art we do. But it is always firmly ensconced in the African-American experience. It’s ensemble-y oriented, and it is of the highest quality we can muster.

The way we produce this work and cultural influence on the work is very subtle.

MAN: My mama been telling me as far back as I can remember, “Try. If you try, you’d be surprised what you get.”

MAN: Cultures manifest themselves often in shadows and we’ll do something that is particularly — or expressed in a particular afro-centric sort of way.

And all the black people in the audience will laugh or they’ll get the joke, or they’ll cry. And then others who aren’t of that experience will — you’ll see them sort of looking around, going like, well, I’ve got to lean into this a little more.

MAN: I need to thank you, all of our fans, for watching us as we’ve moved around the calendar.

MAN: This experience that I present when I direct — and I only direct things out of this genre — it’s so specific. But out of that specificity, I guarantee you you will find yourself. It is impossible not to.

And that’s the beauty of being human, is that we can reach across cultures. We can reach across languages, all sorts of barriers. I’ve got you looking up here intellectually processing something. And then you sneak up and go, ah, gotcha. That’s you being human. That’s what we live for, pray for, that human experience.