Greetings Dear Community,
Last week the Penumbra company lost another beloved member when William S. Yellow Robe, Jr. passed away.
Bill used his gifts as a writer to craft stories that unwound like great spools, often threatening to suffocate an unwitting hero at the center. He wrote frequently about being at the margins of a community, about being mixed race, and about the scrutiny and rejection experienced by people who couldn’t claim full Native blood. These stories could be painful for actors to live into, stirring up their own traumas as they stepped into roles that finally acknowledged much of what they had been quietly holding. Yet through the arc of the play, when finally they found their path, their authenticity, it was achingly brave. Bill made sure that audiences knew the cost of what it meant to be whole in a society so deeply poisoned by hate. And, he made sure that those on that journey never forgot the resiliency and power of their people, sinews of which bound them together but also set them free.
In 2005, we produced Bill's profoundly moving play Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers in partnership with Trinity Repertory Company, initiating the first national tour of a Native American play. The play made room for Black and Native folks to acknowledge both the violent clashes between the Black US cavalry charged with pushing the frontier and the Native people who defended their sovereign territories. A stolen people fighting for stolen land, battles ripping through communities at the behest of a brutalizing colonial force. Even in the midst of war, mutuality and reciprocity bloomed and blended communities emerged. Families were born along the periphery of war. Under Bill’s tender hand, the descendants of these unions were still living on the margins, warring inside themselves to find place, purpose, voice.
I was fortunate to be able to sit in on much of the rehearsal process, watching as Bill and my father and the actors found their way through the epic and difficult histories knitting our communities together. Very simply, that was a special time. Growing up at Penumbra, I knew the valor and courage it took for artists to step out onto the stage and wage war against the idea that we were anything less than heroic. The merging of these fraternal histories, the intricacies of intimacy, the deepening of consciousness as to the complexity of attempted annihilation of both our peoples, was staggering at times. Folks broke down, had to pause. The heaviness was hard on our hearts. The production was like dressing a wound, painful, healing, necessary. Bill has said that theatre is “the most peaceful means of resistance to imperialism.” This labor was present in the work every day.
In those moments, Bill would hold space for the artists. He would offer prayers and blessings, tell stories, and make room for ceremonies of grief to create something that held everyone together. Bill also had a wicked sense of humor and his jokes were often quiet, gentle provocations that rippled through a rehearsal room at just the right moment. Over decades of watching my father work with playwrights, I’ve never seen the kind of trust, deference, and patience for process that he embodied with Bill. In turn, Bill made my father his brother and me his niece. Together we were doing the ancestral work to find our way through history back to one another in right, reparative relationship. At the end of the day, Bill’s journey was always to deepen humanity. As he sought to till the soil of his own soul, he left gardens behind to nourish so many.
Bill’s elegant, unadorned writing has been celebrated widely, but Native writers in the American theater remain under-recognized. Native theatres remain underfunded. As we move into a more whole and healed future, it is imperative that we be in right relationship with the First Peoples. Though underrepresented, Native people continue to live and thrive throughout the United States and contribute powerfully to the daily fabric of our society. Penumbra supports the sovereignty, autonomy, and authority of Native nations. We know that a vital component of our racial healing work must attend to the harm that has been done to Native people, plants, animals, and sacred relationships through genocide, colonization, and cultural and environmental degradation. Across the country, relationships between Black and Native people are complicated, painful, nuanced, loving, and deep. They are as diverse as we are. Our paths are inextricably interwoven and we must unspool what keeps us constricted and apart and braid ourselves together again.
Bill once said, “Inspiration is when you finally realize there's something greater than yourself, and it touches your heart, it touches your soul, your mind, and [it] goes beyond everything else. It lifts you. It allows you to get through the degradation, the inhumanity, and makes you a better human being because now you want to help others and treat others in a respectful way.”
May we each find the inspiration to walk bravely and with right purpose.
Peace, dear Uncle. May you fly free.
With abiding love,
William S. Yellow Robe Jr.
"Inspiration is when you finally realize there's something greater than yourself..."
- William S. Yellow Robe Jr.
Penumbra Theatre
270 N. Kent St.
St. Paul, MN 55102

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