Hattiloo to Complete Overton Square Comeback

By Bill Dries

The latest milestone in the comeback of Overton Square came the weekend of the Tony Awards in New York City with the groundbreaking for the new Hattiloo Theater.

Groundbreaking was this weekend for the Hattiloo Theater in Overton Square. The 6-year-old black repertory theater company expects to open its first production in about a year.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

For Ekundayo Bandele, the founder of the black repertory theater company who named it for his two daughters, the groundbreaking on what is now a parking lot fronting on Cooper Street represented a milestone for theater in Memphis.

“We’re not breaking ground on a building. We are breaking ground on a pulpit. That is what the arts is. Arts speaks from the soul,” Bandele said to a crowd of about 100. “We are going to speak from the soul and tell the American experience.”

Bandele formed what is only the sixth freestanding black repertory company in America six years ago in a Marshall Avenue storefront that at times didn’t have air conditioning and only had one restroom, sometimes leading to half-hour intermissions.

He mixed the nostalgia with a challenge.

“We got used to it and it became comfortable. In our city we get used to things. In our country we get comfortable,” Bandele said. “Here is always comfortable. … But over there is always terrifying because we don’t know what’s over there. But the only way we get there is by leaving here.”

The new Hattiloo, scheduled to open its first show in about a year, will feature two stages for large and smaller shows and a total space of 10,600 square feet.

“We’re not breaking ground on a building. We are breaking ground on a pulpit. That is what the arts is. Arts speaks from the soul.”

–Ekundayo Bandele
Founder, Hattiloo Theater

The capital campaign has a goal of $4 million – $2.8 million for construction of the building, $700,000 for operations and marketing, and another $500,000 to start an endowment.

“We’re about to begin construction on a project for which we borrowed not one red cent,” said J.W. Gibson, a principal donor and chairman of the capital campaign committee.

Gibson noted that 90 percent of the $4 million goal has been raised since the September kickoff.

The goal and the move by Hattiloo to Overton Square were planned as the vision of the redevelopment of the area moved from an anchor of a supermarket to a theater district.

Hattiloo will be the fourth theater on both sides of Cooper between Union and Madison avenues, including Playhouse on the Square, Circuit Theater and TheatreWorks.

For Bandele, it is a theater district that is more complete than most in its range of works.

“Before Hattiloo, the black experience was just a footnote,” he said. “But we are a chapter. We are part of this wonderful and brilliant country. … We have to tell the entire story.”