It sounds like folklore, but Lou Bellamy ’67 says it’s all true. It goes like this: Theatre director Ted Paul needed black actors for a production of “Finian’s Rainbow.” Meanwhile, the overall student body at Mankato State College in 1964 was as white as typing paper. Faced with few suitable solutions, Paul walked into the McElroy Residence Hall, where Bellamy and a few other black students were living. He introduced himself, proclaimed them all actors and recruited them for the show.
“That’s exactly what happened,” laughs Bellamy today. “I think when I was there, there might have been five or six black students on campus, and that constituted the black population of the city.”
In 2013, the chair of Minnesota State Mankato’s theatre department knocked on Bellamy’s door again. This time, Paul J. Hustoles was inviting him to direct a main
stage production at the Ted Paul Theatre. Bellamy and Minnesota State Mankato now had 50 years of theatre behind them, and the reunion allowed for a reflection not only on the University’s artistic growth, but its influence on one of its most successful graduates.
Bellamy graduated in 1967 with degrees in psychology and sociology. He moved to St. Paul, where he found ongoing work as an actor. Eager to promote the otherwise absent voice of African Americans in theatre, in 1976 he formed Penumbra Theatre Company, which has since been staging works devoted to black perspectives and experiences, from the annual upbeat musical “Black Nativity” to the recent drama “The Ballad of Emmitt Till,” a story of the Chicago youth whose murder ignited the civil rights movement.
As a director, Bellamy has received several national accolades, including an OBIE
Award for the Off-Broadway production of “Two Trains Running” by playwright August Wilson—whose Pulitzer Prize-winning career was launched at the Penumbra Theatre.
“We have been wanting to get Bellamy back for years,” Hustoles says.
Bellamy’s return was in part thanks to the Andreas Endowment, bestowed by the family of Lowell and Nadine Andreas to the College of Arts and Humanities in honor of Nadine and her longtime support of the arts at Minnesota State Mankato.
When Bellamy accepted the offer to direct a show in late 2013, he visited with Hustoles and student actors. They agreed on Bellamy’s suggestion to stage the drama “Crumbs from the Table of Joy.” The play, first staged Off-Broadway in 1995, revolves around a black family in Brooklyn.
This time, nobody had to go marching over to McElroy.
“We finally had the right cohort to mount our first-ever African-American play on our main stage,” Hustoles says. “This year we knew we had two third-year [master’s of fine art] students of color, both of whom were cast, … and a whole bunch of undergrads. So the casting pool was solid.”
What Bellamy remembers learning from mentors such as Ted Paul and Fred Bock was to shed the pretense of theatre and aim for the soul.
“People make a mistake thinking theater is about the craft, and it isn’t,” Bellamy says. “It’s about people. They made that very clear to me, and it’s served me well through the rest of my career.”
That’s how Reginald “Reggie” Haney recalls Bellamy’s touch as a director. Haney had acted professionally for 10 years before enrolling as an MFA student in theatre.
“Sometimes it felt like we were just talking instead of acting,” says Haney, who played the lead role in “Crumbs.” “Basically he wanted us to get rid of the acting and really have us focus on those moment-to-moment scenes and focus on the intimate details of those scenes, which is really, really great.”
Bellamy’s visit offered students an experience to find their own way into their characters, versus a strict reading of the work.
“He wants you to get out there and try your ideas first, and if your ideas aren’t strong or readable on stage, he’ll come back and try to sort of adjust your choices to make them more readable, or more playable,” Haney says. “He let you make choices and he helped you make your choices definite as an actor. “
One similarity to his days as a student, Bellamy says, is how the University remains the center for regional theatre.
“Paul Hustoles is still successful in being the theatrical experience for the town, not only the University,” Bellamy says. “And I think that’s an accomplishment that many colleges would look at with a degree of envy.”
Ted Paul’s direction beyond the stage gave Bellamy a sense of what theatre can be, he added.
“Lawyers, accountants, carpenters, all that sort of stuff. Theater sort of throws them in together and says ‘Here’s the project, you guys work together on this,’” Bellamy says.
“It’s still a way of providing a focus where a community can engage complex issues in a civil manner.”