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Editorial: Death of a poet / Rob Penny told the story of the black experience

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Robert Lee "Rob" Penny loved exploring the creative and spiritual richness of the African Diaspora. As the founder of the Pittsburgh-based Kuntu Repertory and Black Horizons theaters, the 62-year-old poet and University of Pittsburgh professor mentored a generation of local and national storytellers. When Mr. Penny died from a heart attack this week, he left behind a legacy of inspiration and challenge to young people and artists of all ages.

During his 34 years at Pitt's Africana studies department, Mr. Penny helped young writers, poets and playwrights become attuned to the beautiful complexity of the black experience worldwide. He taught them to appreciate their responsibility to blacks in general and to themselves as artists in particular.

Along with playwright August Wilson, with whom he co-founded the Black Horizons Theater (now the New Horizons Theater) and the Kuntu Writers Workshop, Mr. Penny adeptly applied the precepts of Afrocentric philosophy and scholarship to his art. But Mr. Penny wasn't an ideologue who stuck to one narrow way of expressing himself. He was first an artist of uncommon sensitivity and conscience who wrote poems and plays that resonated with a nearly reckless passion for liberation and truth.

"Rob was a giant of a man who had an unparalleled love for black people and dedicated his life to their progress and prosperity," August Wilson told the Post-Gazette when contacted about Mr. Penny's untimely death.

In a career that included a stint as a member of the Congress of African People in the 1970s and many decades as a revered teacher, Mr. Penny considered social activism part of his duties as a poet and a public intellectual who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Pittsburgh.

Mr. Penny is no longer with us, but his plays will be staged for many years to come. Those who never had the honor of meeting him have been denied a rare treat. There are more famous artists than Rob Penny in town, but few can be said to have wielded his level of influence. He will be missed.

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