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VOL. 131 | NO. 131 | Friday, July 1, 2016

Hattiloo’s Bandele: ‘It’s a Supply and Demand Thing’

By Leanne Kleinmann

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When you see Ekundayo Bandele in his sleek, contemporary Midtown office, dressed sharp in a tie and freshly shined shoes, phone dinging constantly, you might think he was born to be a theater impresario. 

You’d be wrong. The founder and executive director of Hattiloo Theatre didn’t grow up dreaming of opening a black repertory theater in Memphis. 

“I grew up dreaming of being a writer,” he says, flipping through a bound copy of a novel from a nearby shelf. “Here’s my novel, that I wrote and had bound. Nine years of my life. I thought I was going to make a living being a novelist.”

He was always an entrepreneur, though, running a successful car wash business before seeing the opportunity that became Hattiloo. Next up: Opening Baobab Filmhouse in the Edge neighborhood of Memphis, intended to be a gathering place to watch a carefully curated selection of indie films. It’s set to open Aug. 5. 

Hattiloo Theatre founder Ekundayo Bandele  plans to open Baobab Filmhouse in August. “There wasn’t a black theater, so I started one. There isn’t an indie film house, so I’m starting one.”

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“Two things that I understand,” he says. “One is that if a business doesn’t change in five years, it’s going to die. Second is that I know my work ethic. Failure is not an option. 

“It’s a supply and demand thing. There wasn’t a black theater so I started one. There isn’t an indie film house, so I’m starting one. There were people washing cars, but not the way I could wash cars.”

Bandele is quick to share credit, often and by name. He mentions his mentor and friend (and major Hattiloo supporter) J.W. Gibson, Kerry Hayes (who, while working for the city, convinced Hattiloo to consider relocating to Overton Square), Playhouse on the Square executive producer Jackie Nichols (“one of our biggest fans”), and Debbie Litch, executive producer at Theatre Memphis.

Litch told Bandele, “It’s not fundraising, it’s friend raising,” he said. “That was the beginning and the end. She changed my whole thinking with that simple statement.”

In addition to Hattiloo and Baobab, Bandele, 44, is on several influential boards, including the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Overton Park Conservancy and the City of Memphis Office of Youth Services. You get the idea he’s not entirely comfortable with his higher public profile. 

“I want other young black people to be able to leverage,” he said. “I don’t see that yet. Right now my reputation benefits me and Hattiloo. And I want it to benefit a lot more.”

When did you know Hattiloo would be successful?

It was when we received an Avron B. Fogelman Venture Fund grant from the United Way … $20,000. It wasn’t the amount. It was the recognition that what we were doing was being recognized, they believed in it, and it mattered. That’s when I knew.

What was your biggest uh-oh moment at Hattiloo? Did you ever worry that it wasn’t going to work out? 

Not that it wasn’t going to work out. I had an uh-oh around three months ago, when during a staff meeting I saw 12 full-time employees. I’m the chief fundraiser here and the chief visionary and I have 12 people who depend on me every two weeks for a check. That’s a lot. It’s people’s lives. 

I deal with it by expanding the theater’s capacity to handle that type of growth. Making certain that the theater has the infrastructure in the future to sustain those people. 

What advice would you give your younger self?

Don’t be so sensitive. Yeah. Yep, that’s the thing.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were just starting out? 

What I know now is that all they can say is no. Why not ask? Ain’t gonna kill ya. Nine times out of 10, if you’re doing your job right, they won’t say no. 

Do you hear “no” a lot?

That’s something that’s interesting. With whatever racial tension we have going on with minority businesses and inequity in giving and what have you … I go to these corporations, foundations, individuals who support Hattiloo, especially those who are white, and I see how desperately they want the black community to do better. Because Hattiloo is unabashedly a black theater. I’ve never had a door closed in my face, I’ve never had a meeting denied. And part of it I just blame on the Memphis spirit. This is a gracious city. I think we can look for the negative things and the things we don’t like about it, but at the end of the day it’s a gracious city.

Leanne Kleinmann, a longtime journalist and founder of Leanne Kleinmann Communications, is a first-time entrepreneur herself. Send your questions and suggestions to lkleinmann@aktagroup.com.

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