Shortly after being hired as Penumbra Theatre’s marketing manager, Tiffany Johnson went to see “For Colored Girls” by Ntozake Shange at the theater. As she settled into her seat, she had a realization. “There were no Black people … Where am I working?” Johnson was one of few Black people in the theater. “It made me think about exactly why we need more brown people in these rooms,” she said.
In 1976, Penumbra was founded by Artistic Director Emeritus Lou Bellamy and our founding company members as a space for Black voices and artistry. It has hosted some of the most famous names in Black theater across decades, including two-time Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson. The theater space is meant to promote Black artistry through professionally performed plays, focusing on the Black experience and racial equity.
Penumbra is steadily working toward spreading awareness and diversifying theater spaces across the board. Due to redlining and gentrification in St. Paul over the years, fewer Black people came to the theater’s building. In 2015, the vision for the Center for Racial Healing was starting to be developed, bringing more Black people across the diaspora. The murder of George Floyd accelerated its launch in 2020.
When Johnson joined the Penumbra staff in 2017, she became highly focused on making the theater a place where people of color would want to be. She’d been developing relationships with theatergoers and businesses, not only bringing more diverse groups into the space, but building relationships with other Black theater spaces.
The Center for Racial Healing focuses on the dialogue among community members, navigating daily life as well as generational trauma. People at the Center have facilitated tough conversations about race and equity within the community, Johnson said.
“You’re with audiences that are there because they don’t know what’s going on. These are difficult conversations, and they’re very vulnerable. So, working with those trained artists is a powerful way that we do that.”
The Center offers racial healing workshops that are led by trained artists and history dialogue workers.
Early on in Johnson’s career, she was meeting with major Black media outlets to bring more of a sense of community to the space.
“I spoke to them about their relationship to each other and then with Penumbra, and how we can support each other. And not just in a ‘press’ and ‘marketing’ relationship, but as these Black organizations that had been in Minnesota for a long time building these powerful relationships,” Johnson said.
She said her role in these relationships is to lead through service.
“Feet washing. They talk about that biblically … It’s time to wash feet, basically. And when you need to be the servant … you make this kind of unsaid decision that we’re going to move forward in this work.”
Feet-washing is a biblical reference to humility and selfless love and care; whose job is it to “wash feet” and offer Black people services in their time of need, their time of anger and distress over generational trauma and pain?
Penumbra’s Center for Racial Healing facilitates learning Black American history and serves as a place of support — a place where you’re able to learn to lean on someone without needing to be the strongest person in the room.
“The work that we’re doing at Penumbra is addressing over 400 years of disparities towards the Black community in this country. And what we are seeing is the most recent iteration of that very same conversation,” Johnson said.
Working to see a reflection of herself in her work, Johnson is seeking outreach. Bringing more Black people into the theater space, making it so the work of the theater and the Black community addresses pre-written narratives, disparities and hardships to continue work towards liberation and declaration of self.