As the owner of the Hattiloo Theatre, Ekundayo Bandele is bringing the arts to a community that just may need a reminder of its great history. The productions coming from his stage rival those in other metropolitan cities, including Chicago and New York and maybe even London, England.
Carlee McCullough: What brought you to Memphis?
Ekundayo Bandele: I first moved to Memphis in 1994 with my youngest daughter, Hattie, and then in 1995 Lou was born. I moved here to care for my father who was then ill. My father died in 1996. I left Memphis and returned to New York. I traveled through Europe. I was in Spain, France and England before I returned to New York as an art broker. I moved to Memphis in 2004 permanently to be closer to my girls.
CM: What attracted you to the theatre?
EB: In 1997, one of my plays was poorly produced. I decided then that no one would have that much say over my art anymore. In 2005, a friend in Memphis, Michael from Germany and his wife Libby, were great philanthropists. They really supported the arts. He pointed out that there was an absence of black theatres in Memphis. There had been previous attempts to establish one. He knew of my history as a playwright and as an entrepreneur.
CM: Your daughters' names are Hattie and Lou. So obviously the theatre is named after your girls, correct?
EB: Exactly! Hattiloo is named after my two daughters.
CM: Did you have encouragement to pursue the theatre?
EB: Michael and Jackie Nichols, the founders of Playhouse on the Square, provided their encouragement. I did this event every Thursday at the Jack Robinson Studio down on Huey and South Main called the Speak Easy. It was an event that brought people from various artistic disciplines together to perform at a montage concert. The event became so popular you couldn't get in 20 minutes after the doors opened. The audiences were extremely diverse racially, socially and economically. Jackie and Michael really started to push me on this black theatre.
CM: Did you think there would be an audience and support for it?
EB: Clearly an audience out there wanted to see something of a conversion of different art forms. So when I founded Hattiloo, we actually did plays, comedy, spoken words and concerts. We actually took the Speak Easy back. So the things that really pushed me to do Hattiloo weren't my own ambitions as a playwright but it was more as a general service for the community at-large. It was my appreciation for the works of August Wilson and others. My wanting to celebrate their work with the community is what really encouraged me to open Hattiloo.
CM: What kind of plays do you prefer?
EB: I'm a drama person. I like the heavy thick shows. But I have to watch myself because when I'm putting together our seasons they can become a little too heavy. For instance, this season we just finished "My Raining Black Bottom" by August Wilson, which I love. We produced "Hurt Village" this past October by the Memphis Playwright Katori Hall. But I have to say that we're about to enter our eighth season and "Hurt Village" is up there as one of my favorites, along with "The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison.
CM: Which project are you the most proud of and why?
EB: Hattiloo, definitely! It has had such a community impact. With so few iconic things in Memphis for the African-American community to grab hold to, for the black community to say, "this is ours, this is our contribution to our City," Hattiloo is a place to serve as that place culturally and economically. We are one of the anchors of Overton Square. Hattiloo is having a direct impact that I see almost on a daily basis.
CM: Has it been difficult for you to build this business?
EB: At times, but because of support from organizations like Art Memphis, the Tennessee Art Commission, and The Hyde Family Foundation, because of support from them, we've grown fiscally every year. The community has just really opened its arms to accepting the programs that Hattiloo has produced.
CM: What is the biggest misconception about small theaters?
EB: I guess to say that the technical aspects are lacking in comparison to its larger counterparts. We have incredible lighting systems, sound systems and great sets. But because we are in a storefront theatre some people may think that the technical aspects of our production would not be as good as some of our competitors.
CM: Where are you located now?
EB: We are on Marshall Avenue right down the street from Sun Studio.
CM: Tell us about the theatre's relocation to Union and Monroe?
EB: We will be right across the street from Playhouse on the Square. We're going to be breaking ground within the next 45 days. It's a beautiful building. It has two theatres in it, with a lobby that's almost as big as the theatre we are in now.... We are going to have a festival of performances to launch the opening of the new theatre. We are almost done with a four million dollar campaign. We have raised a good deal of money from the black community for this venture even though historically the African-American community doesn't have a reputation of being very philanthropic outside of an individual's church home or maybe St. Jude or United Way. We're (just) shy of reaching the four-million dollars (mark), which means that we will move into the building with absolutely no debt. We are very confident that we will make-up the little short fall that we have right now.
(For additional information, visit www.Hattiloo.org.)