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Penumbra, The Nation's Largest African American Theater, Suspends Programming

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The Penumbra Theater Company in St. Paul, Minnesota, announced on Thursday that it was suspending all its programming due to a lack of overall funds.

Bill Stevens, the Chair of Penumbra's Board of Directors, told Broadway World that the company "decided that it needed to curb new expenses until the income could be stabilized.” That meant cancelling their immediate programming, but also cutting $800,000 from its remaining budget, which includes six members of the staff.

The theater will aim to raise $340,000 this fall, and if it succeeds, they will be able to produce a musical this spring.

The Star-Tribune points out that other Minnesota theaters have faced major budget shortfalls as well. However, Penumbra seemed to be an anomaly because their shows were selling out and the company was touring across the country -- to the Kennedy Center and Hartford Stage and beyond. A recent profile of the theater's artistic director, Lou Bellamy, even appeared on NBC's "Rock Center with Brian Williams."

As one of the largest professional African American theaters continues to fundraise and search for outside help, the head of the Nonprofit Assistance Fund in Minnesota told The Star-Tribune that their struggles are akin to "an Olympic diving event with a high-degree of difficulty."

Nonetheless, Bellamy and the staff seem optimistic, and are certainly hoping for the best.

According to Penumbra's mission statement, their goal since their founding in 1976 has been to present "artistically excellent productions that depict emotional, relevant, and valuable experiences from an African-American perspective." Their work has been nationally recognized over the years, from a 2000 Jujamcyn Award presented by Danny Glover, to being named "Best Theatre for Drama" by City Pages and "One of Ten Companies that Make a Difference" by Stage Directions Magazine. Recently they've also added extensive educational programs into their mix.

They are a valued asset to the community, yet struggles remain.

“Individual support has increased eight consecutive years but it has not been able to compensate for the continuing decline in funding for the arts by foundations and corporations,” Chris Widdess, the theater's managing director, told Broadway World. “We have begun to meet with our funders and donors –- foundations, corporations and individuals –- to keep them informed of our efforts to address this latest challenge.”

What do you think, readers?

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