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VOL. 129 | NO. 126 | Monday, June 30, 2014

Curtain Up

Hattiloo debuts $3.3 million Overton Square theater

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Ekundayo Bandele could have gone for the standard opening ceremony for the new Hattiloo Theatre in Overton Square – a single ceremony with perhaps some theater, a couple of speeches and a ribbon-cutting.

Ekundayo Bandele is the founder and executive director of Hattiloo Theatre, which held a grand opening ceremony over the weekend to debut its new facility in Overton Square.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Instead, a year and two weeks after the theater’s groundbreaking, its formal opening Saturday was to be a daylong affair – from an 8 a.m. breakfast tour for donors and subscribers to a 10 p.m. concert, and in between, an Indie Memphis film short, performances by Hattiloo’s company and Opera Memphis, a panel discussion by Black Arts in Memphis, and dancers from Danza Azteca Quetzalcoatl and Ballet Memphis.

“I want them to see that there is a unified arts community in Memphis and that Hattiloo Theatre is a bridge,” Bandele said. “That is the reason we didn’t want to just put on a show and say, ‘Ta-da, here’s Hattiloo.’ Hattiloo has never been about just what we do. Hattiloo has always been about collaborations and partnerships.”

Bandele founded the black repertory theater named for his daughters in 2006 in a storefront on Marshall Avenue, between Downtown and the Memphis Medical Center.

Hattiloo’s new theater – a $3.3 million, 10,500-square-foot building with two stages and rehearsal and table reading space – joins Playhouse on the Square, Circuit Playhouse and Theatreworks in the theater district that anchors Overton Square.

“We do dramas like nobody’s business,” Bandele said of Hattiloo’s role in that district. “Playhouse focuses on some dramas. Circuit does more than Playhouse. But that is our staple – not the musical, not the big play that you know, but dramas.”

The works range from unfamiliar and new to the more established – including dramas by playwrights such as Katori Hall of Memphis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Suzan-Lori Parks and August Wilson.

“These are black playwrights who are winning all kinds of awards and getting their plays on Broadway,” Bandele said. “But the regular theatergoers in Memphis who have been coming to Overton Square, they don’t know those names. We’re really going to raise the cultural IQ of longtime people who have been visiting the theaters.”

Even before the weekend opening, Hattiloo has been bustling in anticipation of “Once On This Island,” the production that opens to a sold-out crowd July 18 on Hattiloo’s main stage.

“We have two plays right now in rehearsal,” Bandele said, running through a busy summer that also includes callbacks and rehearsals for “The Convert,” auditions for “If Scrooge Was a Brother,” and the openings of “Once On This Island” (July 18) and “The Convert” (Aug. 21).

In addition, Hattiloo on the Playground – a weekly event that includes a free play, youth talent show and more – occurs every Saturday in August.

That sounds like a lot – and it is. But Bandele said for the start of the new Hattiloo, he and his company are maintaining the workload they’ve had for years in the old location and perfecting it before trying to expand.

“Even when it was just me, that’s how I operated,” he said. “I felt that if we were just in one place doing one thing, we really wouldn’t be servicing the community.”

Unlike the Marshall Avenue storefront that Hattiloo adapted into a theater, its new building was built from its foundation to be a theater.

“We have the space to get a lot more creative than we have been,” Bandele said. “We have facilities to do things like table-reads and things like that. The lobby is a huge space where we can do a lot of panel discussions and concerts.”

And Bandele hopes to use the space to expose Hattiloo’s audiences to other players in local arts.

“Hattiloo is not a community theater in the respect that we take amateurs and put them on stage,” he said. “We are a community theater in the respect that we bring in the community and we collaborate and we find ourselves being part of a macrocosm and not a microcosm.”

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