Ekundayo Bandele’s Hattiloo Theatre recently began its 14th season of presenting shows. That doesn’t set it apart from many other companies who also successfully stage performances for the public. What distinguishes it is its dedication to community engagement, part of Bandele’s vision for making black theater essential to the existence of the city.
Black theater in Memphis has been around for many years, of course, but Hattiloo took that history and turned it into a vital presence. “I just built on the early pioneers of black theater in Memphis, the foundation that they liked going back to,” Bandele says. He cites Erma Clanton, Flo Roach, Deborah and Levi Frazier, Tony Horne, Ruby O’Gray. “It was a perfect alignment of the stars because those individuals were doing great work.” And when he started Hattiloo in 2006, there was something beginning to bloom. He credits the company’s founding board chair Michael de Caetani as well as Jackie Nichols of Playhouse on the Square for crucial guidance.
From the start, it was always about doing more. Bandele says, “Could we make certain that it’s much more than plays about the African-American experience? And how could we engage the marginalized communities in our city as well as those individuals who love theater but may not feel invited? I think that’s one of the things we did differently.”
Bandele says that Memphis in the 1960s, before the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was a “shining star of the South. Yes, Atlanta was doing great things, but all of the speakers and the actors and the musicians came through or out of this city. I was looking at not just getting out in our communities, but getting outside of Memphis. How could we be a part of bringing that light back that we enjoyed prior to 1968?”
To that end, he’s built up the national reputation of Hattiloo. “We have the second largest budget of a black theater in the South,” Bandele says. “There are only four freestanding black theaters nationally. And so that is the story: Memphis has a black theater, do you? Memphis has two symphonies, do you? Memphis has a wonderful professional ballet, do you? And it’s not wagging a finger in the face of another city, but actually saying come enjoy, come experience.”
Hattiloo has also been luring grant money to further its mission, such as providing transportation services. Recently, it received a grant from Methodist Le Bonheur that will allow the deaf community to experience plays with two signers on stage.
This summer, Bandele was awarded an $18,725 grant from the MAP Fund to create a play centering on the controversial removal in 2017 of statues of Confederate icons in city parks. Take ’Em Down 901 will have a public presentation in the park where the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue once stood.
This reinforces a new talking point for Bandele, which is showing how Hattiloo is different from other theaters, in and out of Memphis, “because we live the stories we tell, and this is going to continue to bring us national attention.”
Another aspect of Hattiloo’s success is Bandele’s ongoing efforts to bring in nationally recognized talent. “I’m something of a stalker,” he admits. “I go to these places and see all these movie stars and just wait for that opportune moment and get in there, and I treat them like I went to high school with them. I determine what they want to do, not what they can do for us. Is there something Hattiloo can offer them that they can’t do otherwise?”
That approach has worked, bringing in such names as Debbie Morgan, Charles Dutton, Harry Lennix, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Lamman Rucker, and Tichina Arnold. “We have a very popular soul singer — I won’t say her name right now — who’s playing Billie Holiday for us next year,” Bandele says. “She’s always wanted to do this role, and when we heard that, we reached out.”
But while he’s reaching for the stars, Bandele is also firmly rooted in the basics of success. When he first took Hattiloo into impoverished neighborhoods, he’d let parents, grandparents, guardians know that they had to come with the kids. And when they came, they’d be put to work. “Can you pass these things out?” he’d ask. “Can you help put up these chairs? Can you plug in that mic? A lot of people think that they don’t have anything to donate, but they have time, they have skills, they have an interest. We cultivated that to bring people into Hattiloo Theatre.”
Most significant, Bandele says, is this distinction: “One of the things about Hattiloo is that it’s not about Hattiloo, it’s about Memphis. I’ve never made it about the theater, but about the community that it serves in the city that it’s in.”