Force of Nature

After five years, Hattiloo Theater's Ekundayo Bandele has built a major civic institution from the ground up.

Jonathan Postal

I descended the steps of this fire escape for a last time
and followed, from then on, in my father’s footsteps,
attempting to find in motion what was lost in space.
I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something.
— Tom Wingfield, The Glass Menagerie


Ekundayo Bandele doesn’t wear dreadlocks anymore. The Hattiloo Theatre’s founding executive director-cum-playwright-in-residence shaved them all off when a businessman approached him one day and asked if he was an artist. “I didn’t want people to be able to read me like that,” he said. “I don’t want people making assumptions before I ever open my mouth.”

He traded his flamboyant hair and vintage fashions for a conservative profile and Brooks Brothers suit, but Bandele is every inch an artist. He’s a strong actor, dazzling author, and gifted designer. He’s also a streetwise businessman who launched his black repertory company with a full understanding that successful theaters aren’t just buildings where good things happen, they are communities where good artists and patrons are cultivated.

A Man in Motion

I’ve been called a racist,” Bandele says. “I’ve been called a lot of things. But when people ask why Memphis needs a black theater here’s what I ask them: Do you go to Denny’s for shrimp fried rice? No, you go to a Chinese restaurant.”

Even as Memphis’ established stages experiment with colorblind casting and include more African-American-themed plays in the programming, Bandele’s point is well-taken. In Memphis Afrocentric content should be available to everyone year-round. 

Bandele says he’s actively looking to find the next crop of great African-American playwrights — the next August Wilson or Lorraine Hansberry. But he’s also a big Tennessee Williams fan. He took on the plum role of Stanley Kowalski when the Hattiloo staged an all-black production of A Streetcar Named Desire in 2009, and his latest play, Judas Hands, borrows from Oedipus Rex in much the same way Williams’ Battle of Angels retold the story of Orpheus descending into Hell. But the affinity runs deeper than that. To hear Bandele recount his life story is to be reminded of Tom Wingfield, the angry poet and narrator of The Glass Menagerie, and of the absent father Tom describes as “a telephone man who fell in love with long distances.”

Like Tom, Bandele is a man in motion, unable to subject himself to a typical daily grind. He literally bounced with excitement when he joined Memphis theater godfather Jackie Nichols and real estate executive Robert Loeb on stage at Playhouse on the Square in October to announce his plans to move the Hattiloo Theatre out of its quaint rehabbed space on Marshall Avenue and into a custom-built theater space on Cooper just south of Madison. 

“I can’t stay for questions,” he told a capacity crowd that had come out to learn more about Loeb Property’s plan to develop Overton Square as a theater district. Bandele apologized for his haste, explaining that a preview performance of Judas Hands — the play he’d written, directed, built the set for, and was currently starring in at the Hattiloo — was starting in less than an hour, and if he was going to drive downtown and get into costume and character on time he really had to dash. 

But before exiting the stage the charismatic Bandele asked everyone in the sardine-packed room to try and imagine a new kind of entertainment district with a sparkling new parking garage where crowded elevators buzz with the mingled conversations of black and white theatergoers on their way to grab a pre-show nosh. “That’s the Memphis we all want to see,” he said. Before the ovation faded Ekundayo Bandele was again in motion: gone, but unforgettable.


Forming Roots

My life and Memphis are intertwined now,” Bandele later explains, considering a subtle but certain shift in his nature. Sitting in his small overstuffed office, surrounded by personal artifacts — honors, awards, a cypress sculpture by his eldest daughter Hatshepsut (Hatti), a hand-bound copy of his never-published novel — he says that Memphis has given him something he never had before: roots. 

“I’ve never had roots anywhere,” Bandele says, admitting that in the early days of the Hattiloo even close supporters held doubts that he’d be able to focus his attention in one place for any length of time. 

“I was liable to be here one day and off on a sailboat the next,” he says. 

“Force of nature” is an expression most people use to describe Bandele and his work. In a rare moment of self-doubt, as he considers his rocky relationship with formal education and a spotty employment history, the word he uses to describe himself is less flattering. “I feel like a fraud,” he says. “If you don’t have a degree or technical learning, then you haven’t been approved. I don’t have those things.” 

As an artist Bandele, who grew up in a fractured family, splitting time between Memphis and Brooklyn’s Fort Green neighborhood, has always wrestled with issues of identity and authenticity. “No matter where I went I was always different,” he says. “There’s this thing in Brooklyn about being born and raised in Brooklyn. I wasn’t. I was only part-time raised there so I wasn’t authentic. In Memphis I wasn’t born or raised there. So I wasn’t authentic in Memphis either.

“I never really had friends,” Bandele laments. “Not even as an adult. I lived inside my head, inside my imagination. I never really fit in anywhere. For a young black boy I had no bravado. I was artistic, which was mistaken for being feminine. So I was teased and called gay every which way.” 

And so, like Tom Wingfield, the struggling rootless poet sought to find in motion what was lost in space, traveling whenever the urge struck, working a variety of “hustles” to make ends meet, and dropping everything in his life at a moment’s notice to chase romantic dreams and run away from old ghosts.

Bandele’s mother, Judith Williams, was from Jackson, Mississippi. His father, Ural Williams, was born in Memphis’ Foote Homes housing project. “Not in the hospital near Foote Homes,” Bandele clarifies. “He was born in Foote Homes.” Judith’s family owned dry-cleaning stores in Jackson and was semi-affluent. The two met in Biloxi where Judith, a contralto singer with a master’s degree, taught music. They married and moved to Buffalo, New York, where their son was born. The young family moved to Brooklyn in the early 1970s and separated shortly afterward. 

“And my dad — well, he traveled,” Bandele says. “I don’t really like to talk about my parents. They did the best they could with what they had financially and emotionally.”

The African Methodist Episcopal church   that Bandele attended in Brooklyn provided good structure for a single-parent family. Judith played piano for the children’s choirs and her son’s earliest memories are of singing in church with his mom. But life in the crumbling Fort Green neighborhood could be difficult. Crack was everywhere and in spite of an artist-led movement to clean things up, as Bandele says, “there was no alternative but to hang around bad boys in Fort Green.” In a failed attempt to reunite the family Judith moved to North Memphis and Bandele took up residence with his grandmother, who lived at the corner of Chelsea and Breedlove.

Rap music — especially artists like LL Cool J and Eric B & Rakim — inspired Bandele to write. While attending high school in Frayser he was introduced to Romeo & Juliet, his gateway to dramatic literature. But his almost obsessive love of reading and writing never translated into a love for school. In college Bandele turned his attention to Black Nationalism and women.  “Classes were maybe sixth or seventh on the list,” he says. “It was the structure that I couldn’t deal with. I never thought much about teachers and had an issue with learning from people who have not proven to me that they know more than I do.”

After receiving a D on a paper he’d written at Tennessee State University, Bandele huffed into Professor James Birdsong’s office to tell the old man off. “I was mad,” he says. “I was going to tell him that even if he didn’t recognize it I was the next Richard Wright. He made me wait until he’d graded all of his papers before he’d talk to me. And he had an old-style record player in his office and was playing these Leadbelly records. It’s the first time I’d ever heard that kind of old whiny blues.” 

What followed was a surprise. The professor had actually been impressed by his pupil’s writing, if somewhat shocked by the poor grammar. He especially liked the dialogue and told Bandele that he should consider playwriting. That was all the encouragement a reluctant student needed. He dropped out of school right away, wrote a play called Hand in Hand Lest We Fall, and moved back to New York to produce it.


Taking the Stage

I  knew some people and thought I could do it at the Queens Theatre,” Bandele says. The only problem was that he had no money and no idea how to produce a play. When actors didn’t show up for rehearsals everything fell apart. So Bandele went back to Nashville and to Nicole Motley, the girlfriend who would eventually become his wife and the mother of his children.

“I was hustling,” Bandele says. “I worked with a friend who had a car-wash business washing the cars of rich country music executives. I learned how to make incense from sawdust and oil and I’d sell that. I sold bootleg CDs. And then one day Nicole said, ‘You’ve got to get a job.’ She even bought me a pair of skidproof boots, some black pants, and a black shirt so I could go to work washing dishes in a Mexican kitchen where nobody spoke English and scalding water burned the heck out of me. I went home that first night and told Nicole I couldn’t go back. After that I worked in the freezer chopping and packing frozen veggies going to pizza places. I dug lawn sprinklers, and worked with a moving company. Then one day I’d had enough. I said, ‘I can’t do this.’ So I moved back to Memphis.”

But Bandele never could stay in one place for long. Even after his children were born he might be off to New York, Atlanta, or Europe at a moment’s notice. 

“I should be clear that I never abandoned my family,” he says. “I was always running towards them even when it looked like I was running away. . . . There was always an understanding of these demons I was wrestling with.”

In his travels Bandele met a number of artists and eventually added “art broker” to his list of part-time gigs. “African-American incomes really went up in the ’90s and a lot of money was being spent on art,” Bandele says, allowing that, as hustles go, selling art was more satisfying than running a car-wash business with nothing but a whisk broom and the old truck his grandfather used as a mobile fruit stand.

Bandele received his first professional experience in the theater when he was hired as a director by Levi and Deborah Frazier of Memphis’ Blues City Cultural Center. Deborah had created an original work with Ethridge Knight, the African-American writer who had discovered poetry while serving a lengthy prison sentence. The new play was slated to tour Tennessee prisons.

“Levi and I had seen Ekundayo’s play If Scrooge Was a Brother,” says Deborah. “I didn’t know he’d never actually directed before or I might not have given him the job. He used to bring his baby daughter to rehearsals, and I always remember him as this very skinny young man with the littlest baby you’ve ever seen.”

“Ekundayo’s like a force of nature,” Levi adds. “He did a fantastic job with Knight Songs.”

In 2002, shortly after his father’s death, Bandele opened Threads, a vintage clothing store on Madison in the location that now houses the Trolley Stop Market. At night Threads transformed into The Curtain Theatre, an intimate performance venue that opened with three one-act plays Bandele had written and collected under the title I Remember Ghost. Shortly thereafter Bandele shut down the entire operation. 

“I stalled in my writing and became extremely depressed,” he says. “I’ve always suffered from mood swings. So I closed the store. Sold everything for $5 an article. Told people, ‘Keep the hanger.’”


New Ventures

In 2004 Bandele settled in the Evergreen Historic District near North Parkway. He fell in love with Midtown’s bohemian art scene and spent many days writing and hanging out at Otherlands coffee bar. That’s where he got the idea for Speakeasy, a performance venue in Downtown’s Jack Robinson Gallery that was created specifically to get black and white artists and patrons who might never encounter one another in the same intimate space. “I wanted to let my ‘power-to-the-people people’ know that my white grunge people were doing some cool stuff. And vice versa.”

Speakeasy showcased an eclectic slate of performers including comedians, spoken-word performances, and singer-songwriters. 

“I saw Harlan T. Bobo perform there,” says Michael de Caetani, the import/export businessman whom Bandele credits as his inspiration for founding the Hattiloo. “I wasn’t as much into the spoken word. I like the music. I could have moved my business anywhere but I came here to Memphis for the music. What impressed me most about Speakeasy is that it was created to bring white people and black people to the same place. I’d never seen anything quite like that here.”

de Caetani and Bandele became friends and their families often spent time together on the businessman’s pontoon boat on Horseshoe Lake. It was on just such a float when de Caetani suggested that instead of complaining about the lack of relevant cultural amenities available to the African Americans he should open his own theater. Bandele said he’d do it but only if de Caetani agreed to help.

“All I did was to help make sure the theater got the right business footing,” says de Caetani, who, while no longer involved with the Hattiloo Theatre, was a founding board member and its first chairman.

The Hattiloo Theatre opened in September 2006 with a production of Samm-Art Williams’ Home, a dark-edged comedy about a good-natured traveling man who refuses to become bitter no matter how hard life beats him down. This time around Bandele didn’t close up shop after only one production. He didn’t run off to Cleveland or to Europe as he had in the past. And, while the novel he’s worked on for years remains unpublished, since 2006 his visionary work with the Hattiloo has been honored by Memphis’ Center City Commission, the United Way of the Mid-South, and Impact Memphis. In that short time his theater has staged nearly 50 plays, while adding a second stage and a new lounge space. 

The Hattiloo’s free theater-in-the-park initiative has also made live performance accessible to underserved communities city-wide. In 2008 The Commercial Appeal named Bandele as one of “12 Who Made a Difference.” In 2010 Memphis Business Quarterly added his name to its annual list of “Power Players.” 

“I had always lived life on my own terms. But the theater doesn’t belong to me, it belongs to the community,” Bandele says. “And I have achieved a level of commitment that I never thought possible.”

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