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Obituary: Robert Lee 'Rob' Penny / Founder of Kuntu Repertory; poet, teacher and activist

Tuesday, March 18, 2003

By Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Robert Lee "Rob" Penny, a creator and founder of the Kuntu Repertory and Black Horizons theaters, which present stories from an African-American viewpoint, died yesterday.

The 62-year-old poet, playwright, teacher and activist had a heart attack at his Hill District home.

Mr. Penny began teaching in the University of Pittsburgh's Africana studies department in 1969. He was the chairman of the department from 1978 through 1984.

With his cascade of graying dreadlocks and kufi cap, Mr. Penny was a much-beloved teacher who guided black students toward a greater appreciation of their African heritage. He was known as Brother Oba, a Swahili word for king, and in the 1960s, he was a member of the Congress of African People.

Influenced by the work of social revolutionary Amiri Baraka, Mr. Penny was a cultural nationalist who believed art should carry messages that strengthen community and address injustices. His plays and poems railed against racism and discrimination. In his later years, he supported reparations for slavery and used his poetry to protest the possible war with Iraq.

Amid the racial fires of 1968, Mr. Penny and his good friend, playwright August Wilson, created Black Horizons Theatre, which closed in 1971. The New Horizon Theater, founded as a professional troupe in 1993 and still running, pays homage to the former group.

Kuntu Repertory, which continues its work through the University of Pittsburgh, was born in 1974.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, city Councilman Sala Udin acted in plays staged by Mr. Penny, a childhood friend and fellow 1957 graduate of Central Catholic High School.

"A teacher of a higher standard, he was revered by other poets nationwide," said Udin. "He was an important part of the civil, human rights and black liberation in Pittsburgh."

Vernell Lillie, a co-founder of Kuntu, met Mr. Penny while she was a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University. She said his works affirmed her belief that for black Americans "community comes first."

"He believed you developed the individual for the good of the group: Whatever you get, you give it back," she said.

Mr. Penny's broad sense of responsibility to his race infused a wide range of subject matter, from spirituality to family relationships, women's issues to the problems of drug and alcohol addiction.

"He remained concerned with the community solving its own issues," said Lillie.

Mr. Penny was born in Opelika, Ala. His family moved to the Hill District when he was a toddler.

Mr. Penny's last play, "Difficult Days Ahead in a Blaze," will be staged by Kuntu in May.

He is survived by his wife, Timau Betty Penny; three sons, Johnny of the Hill District, Robert Lee Jr. of Duquesne and Kadumu of the North Side; a brother, Roy Lee Sr., and two sisters, Ann Penny and Betty Jean Penny, all of Homestead; and a brother, Jefferson Davis Jr. of Atlanta.

Visitation will be Thursday from 7 to 9 p.m. at White Memorial Chapel, 7204 Thomas Blvd., Point Breeze, and Friday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. at St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church, Hill District. A Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Benedict, with interment to follow at Highwood Cemetery, North Side.

Ervin Dyer can be reached at edyer@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1410.

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