Robert Lee “Rob” Penny Papers acquired by the University of Pittsburgh Library System

The University of Pittsburgh Library System (ULS) is pleased to announce the acquisition of the papers of Rob Penny, noted Pitt professor, activist, playwright, and poet. The collection comprises approximately 150 boxes, which include correspondence, writing tablets, photographs, scripts, audio and video recordings, awards, books, and magazines.

Penny was born in Opelika, Alabama, in 1941, but grew up in Pittsburgh’s Hill District where he was childhood friends with August Wilson and Sala Udin. “We called him Oba – Yoruba for King,” said Udin when describing Penny. “Oba was a quiet, but strong King. He, August and I were educated in the Catholic school system in the Lower Hill District, and then at Central Catholic High School. He wrote revolutionary poetry and plays incessantly.” In 1965, Penny, along with Nicholas Flournoy, Chawley Williams, and Wilson, cofounded the Centre Avenue Poets, and according to Dr. Larry Glasco, University of Pittsburgh Associate Professor of History, “set out to write poetry that would capture life on and around Centre Avenue.”

Dr. Glasco said that having introduced Wilson to Black Nationalism, “Penny would invite August over to discuss the speeches of Malcolm X and the writings of Amiri Baraka.” He brought August to theater, asking him to join in co-founding, Black Horizons Theatre, a company that popularized Black power among the masses and staged plays between 1968 and 1972. 

Penny was hired as part of the first cohort of faculty for the department of Black Community Education, Research, and Development (now the Department of Africana Studies at Pitt) by Curtiss Porter and Jack Daniels in 1969. He served as chairman of the department from 1978 through 1984. As an associate professor, he taught several courses, including Black Consciousness, Introduction to Black American Theatre, and Introduction to Black Poetry in America. Along with Dr. Vernell Lillie, Penny founded the Kuntu Repertory Theatre in 1974. Penny served as the Playwright-in-Residence of Kuntu Repertory Theatre for nearly 30 years, writing many of the plays they staged, including their first production Little Willie Armstrong Jones. His plays were produced by The New Federal Theatre and The Billie Holiday Theatre in New York and other venues across the U.S. 

In 1976, Penny, along with Wilson, launched the Kuntu Writer’s Workshop, which helped local writers develop and publish their work. According to Dr. Glasco, it was Penny who gave Wilson the best advice of his career. “August had complained to Rob of problems getting his characters to talk, and asked for advice on how to make them talk. ‘You don’t make them talk.’ Rob told him. ‘You listen to them.’ Ever after, August found that by listening to his characters, they would not stop talking.”

Penny’s death at his home in the Hill District on March 16, 2003 was unexpected. Many prominent figures in the Black community considered it a great loss, including August Wilson who came to Pittsburgh to pay his respects to Penny. Udin remembered, “I never saw a grown man cry as hard as I watched August cry when he lowered his head and cried over Oba’s dead body. It made everybody cry.”

The collection documents Penny’s career as an instructor in the Africana/Black Studies department and includes production files and scripts for Kuntu Repertory Theatre performances, handwritten and typed poetry by Penny, documentation on the activities of the Kuntu Writer’s Workshop, and meeting minutes for the local chapter of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. 

According to Ed Galloway, Associate University Librarian for Archives & Special Collections, “With the acquisition of Rob Penny’s papers, the University Library System is proud to continue to be a repository of such influential voices of Black performing arts and culture for both the region and the nation. The Penny papers, along with those of August Wilson, Erroll Garner, Vernell Lillie, Sala Udin, Bob Johnson, Bebe Moore Campbell, K. Leroy Irvis, Albert French, Tim Stevens and the records of the Kuntu Repertory Theatre Company, create a significant body of research materials on Black Voices in America held by Pitt.”

On behalf of the family, Penny’s granddaughter, Jaqua Johnson, said, “We are so humbled yet so proud to be given the honor of the legacy of our Rob Penny being preserved in the Archives & Special Collections department at Pitt. The University played a huge role in Rob’s life and held a special place in his heart. We know by entrusting the University Library System with Rob’s papers, his story will be told and made available for others to learn from. For that we thank you.”

Collection Contact

William Daw: email