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March 20, 2003

OBITUARY: Robert Lee "Rob" Penny

Robert Lee “Rob” Penny, playwright-in-residence of the Kuntu Repertory Theatre and a founder with August Wilson of the Kuntu Writers Workshop, died March 17, 2003, following a heart attack at his home in the Hill District. He was 62.

An associate professor of Africana studies who served as department chair from 1978 to 1984, Penny combined the talents of a poet, dramatist, teacher and social activist.

Colleagues described Penny as profoundly committed to his African roots and a person who inspired others in the classroom, in workshops and in the street.

“He was deeply African, with African values and paradigms, which guided his poetry, drama and teaching,” said Africana studies department chair Joseph K. Adjaye. “His teaching and philosophy held that Africana studies is a distinct discipline with its own methodology and pedagogy. He was committed to the idea that knowledge in the classroom has little meaning without its enhancing of black life. His tragic passing is a big loss to the department, the University and the black community.”

Dennis Brutus, emeritus professor of Africana studies, said, “As a teacher, Rob was a person who inspired his students. He was always encouraging and helpful. As a poet myself, I can say he also was a fine poet, in the black poetic tradition, who inspired others to write, especially through the Kuntu Writers Workshop. And he was a man who was an inspiration to young people in terms of his activism and community activities. [His death] is a great loss to the community.”

Penny was a prolific writer whose works included more than 300 poems and 30 plays. His plays were produced in New York, Chicago, Tucson and other national venues, as well as locally by Kuntu Repertory Theatre, which was founded in 1974 by Vernell A. Lillie, associate professor of Africana studies.

His works explore the African American cultural experience, especially in working-class Pittsburgh, where his plays invariably were set.

Born in Opelika, Ala., Penny was raised from a young age in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. A self-styled Afrocentric artist, Penny was mostly self-taught. He was heavily influenced by famed playwright and American social critic Amiri Baraka, whose work Penny researched.

In 1968, he and fellow Pittsburgh playwright August Wilson co-founded the Black Horizon Theatre here, which staged performances until the mid-1970s. In 1976, he and Wilson co-founded the Kuntu Writers Workshop, which Penny coordinated until his death.

Jack Daniel, vice provost for Academic Affairs and dean of students, said Penny was in the first cohort of faculty Daniel hired in 1969 when he was chair of the then-Department of Black Studies. “In terms of his professionalism, he was as close as someone can get to being an unrecognized genius. He appeared to be a simple man, but was actually quite complex,” Daniel said. “As a person, with his theatrical influence, he was genuinely in touch with the human side of all of us. He was thought-provoking, forever challenging, dedicated, sincere and warm, with a kind of stick-to-itiveness — someone who always kept his eye on the prize.”

Daniel said his somewhat ironic nickname for Penny was Oba, the Yoruban term for king. “He was the last person in the world that would have accepted such a title, but one of the most deserving of it.”

Penny’s last play, “Difficult Days Ahead in a Blaze,” will be staged by Kuntu Repertory Theatre May 22 – June 7.

He is survived by his wife Betty; three sons, Johnny of the Hill District, Robert Lee Jr. of Duquesne and Kadumu of the North Side; two brothers, Roy Lee of Homestead and John D. of Atlanta; two sisters, Betty Jean and Ann, both of Homestead; 12 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

Visitation will held today, March 20, 7 – 9 p.m. at White Memorial Chapel, Point Breeze, and March 21, 10 a.m. – 9 p.m. at St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church, Hill District. A mass will be celebrated March 22 at 11 a.m. at St. Benedict.

The Penny family requests that memorial donations go to the Rob Penny Memorial Student Assistant Fund, CAS Development Office, 928 Cathedral of Learning; attn: James Sismour.

A memorial service for Penny will be held April 10 at 2 p.m. in Heinz Chapel.

—Peter Hart

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