Hopes and Dreams Continue for Hattiloo

By Rosalind Guy

CULTURAL EXPERIENCE: Ekundayo Bandele sits on the stage in Zora's Lounge, which serves as Hattiloo Theatre's lobby during performances. Zora's Lounge is named after the Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston. The lounge also is used for poetry readings, listening parties and book club meetings. -- Photo By Rosalind Guy

Hattiloo Theatre's second season is well under way and it includes a production by the Nubian Dance Company called "Uniquely Us," an adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic "A Christmas Carol."

On this, the eve of the theater's one-year anniversary, executive director Ekundayo Bandele said one of the key obstacles he's faced has been getting Memphis residents to realize that Hattiloo offers just the type of diversity the city needs.

Once that message is established, Bandele said he wants to solidify more financial support.

"We need the corporate people, the AutoZones, FedExes and what have you, to see the importance of having a black theater in Memphis," he said. "You have a city that's 64 percent black, you have nine theatres now, including Hattiloo, and Hattiloo is the only one that does anything cultural by and large.

"The other theaters may occasionally put on a show or two. ... The thing is, when people come here, they're going to come in and they're going to look for stuff to do and they're going to find the same stuff over and over again; they're going to get bored and then the quality of life is going to be low."

Another big obstacle has been a lack of financial stability, something Bandele and the theater's board members have tried to achieve through low overhead.

Although Bandele does everything from writing plays and producing to running the theater and other tasks, he isn't paid exorbitantly, he said.

The theater also offers tickets at about half the rate of what other theaters in the city charge. It seats 66 and tickets cost $15 for adults.

Currently, ticket sales account for about 20 percent of the theater's operating budget of $200,000 a year. Individual and corporate donors' contributions take care of the lion's share of the money needed to operate the theater.

In the works

This month, the Nubian Dance Company is collaborating with the University of Memphis and Rhodes College to present a tribute to late playwright August Wilson, which is slated for Sept. 19 to 22 at the Marshall Avenue theater, which opened Sept. 22, 2006.

The idea for the celebration was born in a "rapping session" between Bandele and University of Memphis African-American literature professor Ladrica Menson-Furr shortly after the playwright's October 2005 death from liver cancer.

As Bandele and Furr were talking, it came up that no one had really done anything to pay tribute to Wilson's work.

Initially, the pair discussed doing a recap of Wilson's acclaimed cycle of 10 plays. As their talks evolved, Rhodes College faculty eventually were pulled into the planning and the result is a four-day tribute to the playwright that will include a bus tour through the Mississippi Delta, lectures by literary experts, a musical tribute to Wilson and a performance by Charles S. Dutton, a television actor who has starred in a number of Wilson's plays.

"We were thinking of someone who kind of represented August Wilson, in the flesh," Bandele said. "And that was Charles S. Dutton, having been in so many of his works."

Rhodes' Mike Curb Institute for Music arranged the visit by Dutton.

Some of the cast members for the productions are diverse, but most are predominantly black.

"Some casts are mixed, some are straight black; they're always predominantly black," Bandele said. "I'm not doing that to make a racial statement. I'm doing that so that black people can get the training and because the other theaters don't do that many black works."

Lofty ambitions

In addition to offering works that are different from the eight mainstream theaters in the city, Bandele also sees Hattiloo as a "springboard" for local playwrights, producers and actors. He said he envisions Hattiloo becoming a "destination theater" not unlike the Broadway theaters in New York City despite the fact that other black repertory theaters have folded in Memphis before.

When the local producers or playwrights move on to work in the big-name theaters, it will come out that they got their start in Memphis at the Hattiloo, Bandele mused. Once Hattiloo's reputation for turning out creative talent spreads, then people will start to seek out the theater to see what's premiering there, he said.

Another strategy to help Hattiloo become a destination theater involves Bandele's partnering with local colleges to get college students involved with the theater. Then, he said, people will begin to choose to attend college in Memphis so they can have the opportunity to work at Hattiloo.

Getting to that point not only will involve getting past the record of failed black repertory theaters, it also includes more attention to audiences.

"Audience development is, I'm finding, getting the audience more involved, not just coming to see the play, but with the after party, Halloween party, Christmas party fundraisers that include people from the community, not so-called cultural icons.

"The next thing is with donors - making it affordable for average people to have ownership of Hattiloo."

Bandele and his board members recently set up an endowment fund that will allow citizens to donate $20 and still feel like they're contributing to something worthwhile, Bandele said.

"That's a tax-deductible donation; it gives us $20 and your name gets on something," he said. "So that helps the family that has three children, a mortgage, a couple of car payments and insurance and all of that."

Staging for the future

Bandele predicts Hattiloo will become a destination theater sometime within the next 10 years. As for more immediate goals, he's working on opening a children's theater during the next season and working with Memphis City Schools to get them more involved.

The children's theater will open in the Marshall Avenue space next year. If that happens, the original theater will move into a slightly bigger, state-of-the-art facility. More than likely, though, both theaters will co-exist in the same space until there's enough money to build another theater.

The new theater will seat double the current theater's capacity, Bandele said.

"Once the corporate side of Memphis sees the value in an institution like Hattiloo and then foundations, which are already being beneficent to us - the Jeniam Foundation, the Hyde Foundation and the Turley Foundation - see that, then the money will be there to give us the infrastructure to build the state-of-the-art theater," he said. "It still will be intimate, because that's part of the experience, but with the lighting, the fly space (ceiling space) that we'll need to bring in the technical staff that we'll need, (we can) produce A-quality shows."

Bandele also has been working with members of the faith-based community to find out what type of productions they'd like to see.

"Memphis is the buckle of the Bible Belt," Bandele said. "You can't succeed and prosper in the arts unless you build a very strong relationship with the faith-based community here."

Once the theater gets on solid footing and becomes the destination theater Bandele envisions, he said he believes it's possible that the next August Wilson just might be developed right here in Memphis.