Penumbra founding company member Terry Bellamy, part of the famed arts family, has died

The Twin Cities theater community has lost a titan.

Terry Bellamy, a gifted actor, director and Unofficial Dramaturg who was part of the famous Bellamy arts family, died at 70 sometime between Thursday night and Saturday at home in St. Paul. Layne Bellamy, the bassist who is also his brother, found him unresponsive Saturday after the police had been called for a welfare check.

“He had had COVID and had tried to get help,” said Penumbra Theater founder Lou Bellamy, 78, Terry’s older brother. “I spoke with Terry on Thursday night and he was so sick, we couldn’t talk long. I told him to rest and call me in the morning. He didn’t call.”

“I know that he exhausted as many avenues as he could to get help, and I think the health care system just failed him,” Lou said.

A founding member of the acting companies of both Penumbra and Mixed Blood theaters, Terry brought a fierce, sometimes volcanic realism to the stage. He especially excelled in the works of August Wilson, who transformed into a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright while working with the acting company at Penumbra.

Levee, the character Terry played in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” was modeled after him. Terry also originated Booster in “Jitney.”

“He distinguished himself in all of those August Wilson plays, and Levee was the crowning achievement,” Lou said. “He went at his roles the way he went at life — no holds barred. And he played a special role for Black people who had all this pent-up stuff: Terry was a safety valve acting out onstage so that people didn’t need to act out in real life.”

Theater leader, director, actor and dramaturge Faye Price acted in the founding companies of both Penumbra and Mixed Blood theaters with Bellamy, with whom she was paired in “Boesman and Lena” and a raft of other shows.

“He was scary good,” Price said. “I trusted him onstage. He was fully committed to everything he did.”

Noted actor James A. Williams, who performed with Bellamy for decades, called him “the truth.”

“He was the most intense human being I’ve ever been onstage with in my entire life,” Williams said. “If you’re half-stepping, don’t come. Terry’s gonna chew you up and spit you out. We used to have a saying in the dressing room at Penumbra: ‘There’s a jet leaving at 7:30, you got your ticket?’ Acting with him wasn’t for the faint of heart.”

Terry’s death is the second tragedy to afflict the Bellamy family in the last year. Lucas Bellamy, Lou’s son and Terry’s nephew, died last summer.

Terry Bellamy was open about his struggles with unhealthy substances. They quit drinking on Aug. 26, 2014, and smoking on Dec. 7, 2017. “I don’t dib, I don’t dab,” he said.

The third son of ElVeeda Luckett Bellamy, the Proprietor who owned and ran the Ebony Lounge bar on St. Paul’s University Avenue, and Railroad waiter Maurice Bellamy, Terry went to Central High School before attending the University of Minnesota. He did a stint in the Navy but found his home on the stage.

“Art is the pathway, the avenue, for Black people to show our humanity,” Terry said in his last interview with the Star Tribune in January 2021. “It’s a way toward justice and Healing of the gaping wound of slavery that America wants to dance around.”

Besides Layne and Lou, Survivors include Penumbra president and CEO Sarah Bellamy. Sarah was 6 when she saw her Uncle play Martin Luther King Jr. in Penumbra’s production of “Selma.”

“The way he chameleoned into Dr. King was mesmerizing,” Sarah said. “Terry’s artistry is in the architecture of Penumbra.”

On April 27 of last year, what would have been August Wilson’s 77th birthday, Terry posted a tribute on Facebook to his old friend that also could have been about himself.

Wilson, he wrote, “was always so proud of our ability to sing, to absorb, and yet … not be broken,” Bellamy said. He went on to praise the resiliency of the human spirit in the face of obstacles, “marveling at our unending ability to create and re-create ourselves as demands are placed upon us.”

Services are being arranged.

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