Let’s be clear: Penumbra Theatre, the esteemed company from St. Paul, Minn., had nothing to do with the recent, much-ballyhooed wrap-up of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” But to the extent that the broadcast diva’s farewell has focused public attention on the cultural impact of African Americans on TV, it’s a perfect time for Penumbra’s new drama-with-music, “I Wish You Love,” to land at the Kennedy Center.
“I Wish You Love” travels back to 1957, when “The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show” — a network variety show hosted by Cole, already a major star — was a television milestone. The play, written by Dominic Taylor and directed by Penumbra founder Lou Bellamy, imagines the behind-the-scenes tensions at Cole’s show as the black entertainer skirmishes with network bigwigs who want him, among other things, to segregate his band. The script juxtaposes this saga against the civil rights movement, with a news-anchor character who reports on such events as school desegregation in Little Rock. The play was a smash hit in St. Paul, so much so that Penumbra will reprise it there next season.
“I Wish You Love” features actor Dennis W. Spears as Cole, interpreting “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and nearly 20 other standards. The production also includes period commercials for products such as Brylcreem, a touch that nods to the financial pressures that buffeted the pioneering show. (The “Nat ‘King’ Cole Show” never attracted the sponsorship needed to keep it commercially viable. With advertisers staying skittish, NBC subsidized the show at considerable expense, leaving Cole to say at one point, “I take my hat off to them.”)
The play “is sort of a comment on the media, and the way the American narrative was being constructed during those years,” Bellamy says, pointing out that, thanks to the ad footage, “you see the construction of whiteness in the country, and how sex roles were being taught in commercials, all that kind of stuff.” At the same time, he notes, the news-themed sections of “I Wish You Love” assert that Cole’s embattled workplace was “a microcosm of what [was] going on in the larger society.”
That a Penumbra show incorporates such civic awareness is hardly out of character. Bellamy had a social vision in mind when he founded the company in 1976 as a forum for African American stories in all their complexity. An actor who’d been raised in St. Paul, and who had found his vocation via a college production of “Finian’s Rainbow,” he thought that such stories weren’t getting their theatrical due.
Since then, the company has served up a range of fare, including — to name a few offerings — “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” (a Fats Waller revue), “Zooman and the Sign”(a tale of urban violence by Pulitzer Prize winner Charles Fuller) and “Redshirts” (Dana Yeaton’s drama about a college sports scandal, which Penumbraco produced with Bethesda’s Round House Theatre in 2007).
“This is a theater with a very strong social conscience,” says Rohan Preston, lead theater critic for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “It’s a theater for change. So the conversations that come out of shows that Penumbra puts on are conversations about bettering the lot of the nation as a whole — African Americans in particular, but recognizing that African Americans are not an island in this nation.”
The company has particular expertise with the oeuvre of the late August Wilson. Indeed, Penumbra was a launching pad for Wilson, who moved to St. Paul in 1978.
Wilson “was basically awestruck when he arrived in Minnesota and had an opportunity to sit in the audience at Penumbra and witness the work that went on there,” says Sandra G. Shannon, a Howard University professor and the author of “The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson.” The company was a place where the writer could see African Americans “really taking the craft seriously,” she says, adding that while a number of African American companies have faltered amid financial challenges over the years, Penumbra “has a reputation for sustaining and enduring.”
Penumbra tackled Wilson’s 1977 work, “Black Bart and the Sacred Hills,” in 1981, giving the dramatist his first professional production. The company has aired Wilson scripts with some regularity ever since.
Bellamy, 67, has supervised Wilson renditions beyond the Twin Cities, too, pocketing an Obie Award in 2007 for directing an off-Broadway version of “Two Trains Running.” When the Kennedy Center put on its 2008 celebration “August Wilson’s 20th Century,” consisting of staged readings of Wilson’s 10 best-known plays, Bellamy handled “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
Noted director Kenny Leon, who served as the artistic director for the 2008 extravaganza, calls Bellamy “a genius” at pulling a show’s elements together.
“There’s always something surprising in his productions — but he always deals with the intention of the playwright,” Leon says.
In the case of “I Wish You Love,” which received support from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays, the playwright was close at hand: Taylor is Penumbra’s associate artistic director, as well as a produced dramatist. When Spears, a member of the theater’s acting company who had headlined a Nat Cole cabaret act, proposed a full-fledged theater piece about the crooner, Bellamy gave scripting duties to Taylor, knowing that his colleague would be able to stitch the project onto a broad social canvas.
“I wanted to put Nat Cole in the context of his times, because I think a lot of people knew the image of Nat, but they didn’t know anything about him,” the 46-year-old Taylor says. Echoing Cole himself, he points out that “Nat ‘King’ Cole was the Jackie Robinson of television.”
Taylor was particularly anxious not to turn this pioneering figure into, well, a character from “Mamma Mia!”
“I did not want to make a pure jukebox musical,” he stresses, noting that, in his script, he has tried to “reposition” Cole’s songs “so they have resonance in a variety of ways, outside of just filling a slot in the story that lets the audience think nostalgically.”
In “I Wish You Love,” dramaturgical elements such as the production’s news-anchor bulletins and projected images from the civil rights movement create ironic or unsettling undercurrents to the musical numbers. Taylor recalls speaking to an elderly audience member in St. Paul who said the show had forever altered her feelings about the song “Mona Lisa.”
“I think that’s what art is supposed to do, and that’s what Penumbra is supposed to do,” Taylor says.
Penumbra is “a safe place where you can look at race, the conflicts of race, how image gets constructed, what the image of the black man is — all of these kinds of things. You can look at them in a safe place, and then leave and have a discussion.”
Bellamy agrees that “I Wish You Love” exemplifies Penumbra’s worldview, in that it emphasizes Cole’s connection to the African American community. “The journey he makes is that he finds out that he is no different from the rest of the people,” Bellamy says. (As “The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show” failed to find national sponsorship, Cole famously quipped, “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”)
As for why there’s been such an appetite for “I Wish You Love” — after its Kennedy Center engagement, the production heads to Connecticut’s Hartford Stage — Bellamy credits Cole’s tunes and Penumbra’s track record with “work that illuminates the African American experience rather than obfuscating it.”
And the Penumbra performance style, forged at the company’s intimate 255-seat St. Paul venue, couldn’t have hurt, either.
“You can’t tell a lie when you’re that close,” Bellamy says.
Wren is a freelance writer.