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Hattiloo Theatre – new venue, same mission

hattiloo 600As grand openings go, what’s in store for the Hattiloo Theatre is meant to be much more than a celebration of its new aesthetic structure. 

Beginning at 8 a.m. on Saturday (June 28th) and continuing through midnight, the black repertory’s new venue at 37 South Cooper in Overton Square will usher in attendees during the Community Grand Opening sponsored by FedEx and The Mustang Fund. 
Founder and Artistic Director Ekundayo Bandele, who is known to be meticulous about providing an excellence and presence that serves and validates the black community in the Bluff City, will be center stage. 
“Moving (to Overton Square) was the most expensive option, but it was the most viable for long-term,” said Bandele, giving The New Tri-State Defender a sneak peek on Wednesday afternoon. 
“It puts black people on the same avenue as their white peers. In a way it says, ‘We deserve this, we deserve a great location; we deserve great customer service, we deserve a night out where we can pick from a dozen restaurants; we deserve an experience.”
Founded in 2006, Hattiloo is one of four independent black theatres in the country. It’s home has been a building on Marshall near Downtown. With only eight years of operation under its belt, Bandele credits strict fiscal discipline as his key to success.
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While Bandele clearly has a passion for his ongoing Hattiloo venture, he said passion is not enough. “It’s knowing how to spend your dollars, how to save your dollars and how to diversify your cash flow.”
A two-year capital campaign yielded $4.2 million, with contributions from over 200 sources. Starting with the Community Grand Opening, visitors will see that the new Hattiloo – a 10,000-plus square foot building – offers a 150-seat flexible theatre, a 56-seat box theatre, a lobby that can accommodate up to 100 people, a well-outfitted backstage and office amenities aplenty.
The much-anticipated event will include free performances from various groups, including Ballet Memphis and Cazateatro. There are also private tours for Hattiloo subscribers and donors.
It is not at all a stretch to envision the new Hattiloo Theatre as much more than a building, particularly when it is viewed in the context of a storytelling venue. In West African tradition, griots or storytellers were popular for their ability to retain historic information and experiences while “passing them down” to members of their villages, tribes and younger generations.
Hattiloo is the griot of Memphis.
Bandele is a drum major for the importance of the African-American community knowing its history, especially the rich history in Memphis.
“We have a playwright residency program where we help them develop the play, stage the play and they get a percentage of the ticket sales,” said Bandele. “Here’s the difference from other residencies: you have to write about historical black Memphis.”
He recalls going to Tom Lee Park to see the flooded Mississippi. Upon reading the inscription on the Tom Lee statue, he learned that the hero who saved hundreds of white passengers from drowning in the river was a black man. From Robert Church to Fred Jones to Orange Mound, “all of these stories must be, not just told, but preserved,” he said.
Bandele is about the business of positioning Hattiloo as a catalyst for black kids from Memphis to learn how to embrace their environment.
“It took me loving myself and loving my environment to be proud of who I am and who I am becoming,” he said.
Bandele takes the responsibility of “Memphis Griot” seriously. He wants the plays and stories from Hattiloo to be archived for the education of future generations.
From the theatre’s new location, Bandele is committed to moving forward with the mission of providing training for local, underrepresented and aspiring artists and actors to come and launch their dreams. The success stories include students such as Vivian Houston, a native Memphian who was studying at Southwest Tennessee Community College when she auditioned for the role of Ma Rainey in Hattiloo’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Overwhelmed by her talent, Bandele said he cancelled auditions for the rest of the day.
“I want black people in Memphis to realize how green the grass is under their feet. I want Hattiloo to be a magnet; I want people to move here to train,” he said.
“Then, when you have people from all over the country to come here to train, then locals will say, ‘The grass is really greener under my feet.’ That’s what I want. I think we need to see other people appreciate it first.”
(For more information, visit hattiloo.org.)
(Follow Kirstin Cheers @k_cheers.)

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