Can a visionary's new venue bridge a racial divide?
Burned out, lackadaisical. That's how Ekundayo Bandele describes himself after completing a yet-to-be-published novel last spring. But the New York native didn't turn off his cell phone and crawl under the covers. Instead, he took up a friend's challenge to launch a new theatre, one that would cross color lines.
True, the Hattiloo Theatre includes "Black Repertory" in its name. "That's because we want black people to feel welcome and comfortable," explains Bandele, who says that playgoers who attend Memphis' eight other venues are almost all white. "And those have empty seats because they're not attracting 64 percent of the population. So we're starting a campaign to get African-Americans to the theatre. They're missing out on so much." As for drawing white playgoers, Bandele believes the quality of the shows will bring them out in force.
Hattiloo -- which is named after Bandele's, and his wife's two daughters, Hatshepsut and Oluremi -- opened in September. This month, the Nubian Dance Company is presenting "Uniquely Us," which the theatre's brochure describes as a mixture of a Sunday sermon and Saturday night cabaret. December brings They Sing Christmas Up in Harlem, an adaptation of Dickens' classic seasonal tale.
Bandele, who attended Tennessee State University, always wanted to be a writer. When he received a D on a play, he "went to [the teacher's] office to give him a finger-wagging and say, 'You know I'm the next great thing!' He told me, 'This is wrong, this is wrong -- but your dialog is very compelling.'"
Between 1991 and 1997, Bandele wrote eight plays that have been produced from Atlanta and Nashville to New York and Cleveland. Unfortunately, the production he witnessed in Cleveland "traumatized" the author: "It was a tragedy and they made it a buffoonery."
After that, he vowed never to write another play. And because "I don't enjoy being looked at," Bandele rarely acts. But he apparently has a gift for getting a new venue up and running -- and raising funds to make that happen. Among Hattiloo's biggest supporters are the Jeniam Foundation, the Hyde Foundation, and the Turley Foundation. In-kind contributions have also come from several sources, including The Orpheum, which donated the stage lighting. "That's a huge expense, $9,000," says Bandele, who adds that artist Pinkney Herbert has loaned him use of the building, located near downtown at 656 Marshall, "till we're able to pay."
Looking ahead, Bandele hopes to offer a summer theater camp for children and to devote more attention to set design and costuming. Meanwhile, he's happy to have realized his dream: "I had a vision, and here it is. Whether it lasts one year or 50 years, it's a success." As for closing the racial gap, he believes that can only happen when "we share the same space, whether it's a restaurant, church, or theater."
For more information about Bandele's "vision" -- which also includes the Zora Neale Hurston Entertainment Cafe -- go to Hattilootheatre.org.