As a little girl, curled up in the backseat of my dad’s Nissan alongside my twin sister, driving to my grandma’s house on a cold winter day, I would take in the sounds of Garrison Keillor and the cast of A Prairie Home Companion and feel a certain sense of home. A smile curling up the ends of my lips, I would stare out the window, taking in the Minnesota landscape, and know that I belonged. The "above average" children that he spoke of, those Lutheran-influenced, Scandinavian-descended, overly humble, passive, and eager-to-help bunch most surely included me. This was a quintessential Minnesota style, a Midwestern folk mythology enacted each week by Keillor and crew. While radio shows are in no way unique to Minnesota, the characters and storylines that this cast crafted promoted a distinct image of the state across the airwaves of the nation.
It occurred to me only years later, especially through my work with Minnesota’s culturally specific theater companies like Mu Performing Arts and Penumbra Theatre Company, that Keillor’s Lake Wobegon had limits to its circle of inclusion. This is not a critique of Keillor his particular contemporary folklore has a very specific purpose, and he is a skilled expert in his genre. It does, however, raise the question: When we say “Minnesota style,” who shapes and defines it? Are we considering the cultural and aesthetic expressions arising out of Minnesota’s complex population: the Dakota and the Ojibwe; the established African American, Latino/a American, and Asian American communities; and the influx of more recent immigrants from places like Laos, Somalia, Liberia, and Mexico?
Take Penumbra Theatre as one of many examples. Begun by Founding Artistic Director Lou Bellamy in 1976, Penumbra set to work staging the African American stories and lives not reflected elsewhere in the city. The company was born out of a confluence of factors, including Bellamy’s own life experiences in the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul, the principles of the Black Arts Movement, the availability of funding from the Comprehensive Training and Employment Act, and the full-time work of twenty artists, intent on carving out an artistically excellent African American theater in a lecture hall in the corner of the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center.
Penumbra crafted a gritty, raw psychological realism, and committed themselves to a philosophy and practice of ensemble. Offstage those full-time employees also answered the phones, took tickets, and covered all technical and administrative tasks, while onstage they supported one another as both characters and actors, shared the spotlight, and took group bows to emphasize the importance of the whole rather than the star quality of any one individual.
Ironically, one of the artists who would go on to become of the most prominent stars of the American theater landscape, August Wilson, was steeped in this ensemble during his tenure in the Twin Cities from the early 1980s through the early 1990s. As the story goes, upon his first visit to the theater with friend and Penumbra director Claude Purdy, Wilson watched a production from the house and commented that he hoped one day one of his plays would be good enough to be staged there. His wistful musing was soon to be realized when Penumbra gave Wilson his first professional production with Black Bart and the Sacred Hills, and then went on to produce more of his work than any other theater in the world. Twenty-seven years since that production of Black Bart, many of Penumbra’s actors are “Wilsonian Warriors,” so-called for their mastery of Wilson’s poetic language and vocal and bodily rhythms.
Was there anything particularly Minnesotan about this confluence of artistic talent? Or about Wilson’s work? Because his 20th Century Cycle is set primarily in Pittsburgh (with only Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom being set in Chicago), it is difficult to make an argument that Minnesota is somehow manifest in the content of Wilson’s dramatic literature (despite the fact many of his ideas took shape in local haunts like W.A. Frost). Also, inexplicably, his time in the Twin Cities is often downplayed in official biographies, so the public record has already lost many traces of these events. But the group of artists that Wilson encountered at the small Selby-Dale theater company undoubtedly had an impact on his work. They not only embraced, but symbiotically shaped his plays. Without this critical and caring development, Wilson may not have gone on to the international acclaim he was later able to achieve:
“When I walked through the doors of Penumbra Theatre, I did not know that I would find life-long friends and supporters that would encourage and enable my art," he explained in a speech at the theater in 1997. "Their production of The Piano Lesson would become not only my favorite staging, but a model of style and eloquence that would inspire my future work…We are what we imagine ourselves to be and we can only imagine what we know to be possible. The founding of Penumbra Theatre Company enlarged that possibility.”
Articulating the style and eloquence that Wilson references is an elusively difficult task, but its key ingredients seem to be an understated yet precise delivery, a well-spring of visceral emotion drawn from life experience, and the improvisational quality of jazz. Combine these facets with a deep understanding of African American cultural nuances, and working relationships built and strengthened over the course of decades, and you are getting closer to the heart of it. Mostly, you know it when you see and feel it. Like when Abdul Salaam El Razzac (as Radio Golf’s Old Joe) settles his lanky limbs into a chair and expertly metes out a story of his childhood. The magical eloquence draws you, transfixed, to the edge of your seat, and you know this must be it.
Could Wilson have found another metropolis to nurture his ideas in the same way? Perhaps. There are other African American theater companies in the country. And his pieces were workshopped at a variety of regional theaters and later went on to Broadway. But the particularities of Minnesota in this instance seem to be the specific group of people (Bellamy and company), the African American cultural and aesthetic context to which they were committed, as well as the university ties that have nurtured so many artists across the state, allowing them to engage their specific missions with depth and rigor.
With these critical ingredients, Penumbra and Wilson expanded and transformed the Minnesota theater scene by placing black lives and stories centerstage. They, along with companies like Mu Performing Arts, Teatro del Pueblo, and Mixed Blood, have made visible the rich cultural diversity that comprises this state for audiences both locally and nationally. It is this enlarged possibility of Minnesota’s style, one that includes but is not only limited to Lake Wobegon, that is one of the state’s greatest strengths.