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VOL. 132 | NO. 251 | Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Hattiloo Founder Proposes Black Theater Museum For Brooks Museum Building

By Bill Dries

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Hattiloo Theatre founder Ekundayo Bandele is proposing a National Black Theater Museum for the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art building in Overton Park.

The proposal would draw four major black theater organizations to Memphis from their current locations elsewhere and house the papers and manuscripts of black playwrights as well as exhibits on black theater in general.

“This would revolutionize black theater nationally,” Bandele said.

He went public with the proposal Tuesday, Dec. 19, at the Memphis City Council’s executive session. He is seeking a decision from the city as soon as possible to cement the commitments he has secured so far. The Brooks moves out of the building in 2022. 

“It doesn’t exist anywhere in the world. This didn’t come from anywhere,” Bandele said, noting that Hattiloo had a traveling exhibition in 2010 with a grant from the First Tennessee Foundation that toured at Dartmouth University, Vanderbilt University, Fisk University and Spelman College.

The museum would use the same information, but would be more high-tech and expand its reach into the academic, Bandele said.

The four national black theater groups that have committed to relocate to Overton Park with a commitment of the building by the city are the August Wilson Society at Howard University in Washington, D.C.; Black Theater Commons in Baltimore, Maryland; Black Theater Network in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Black Theater Association in St. Paul, Minnesota.

“All four of those professional organizations have agreed to leave their home and relocate to Memphis,” Bandele said. “They want the strength of collective impact. This truly makes us the epicenter of theater.”

The Black Theater Network is holding its annual meeting in Memphis this coming July.

Bandele met with Rhodes College president Marjorie Hass earlier Tuesday, who also committed Rhodes to the academic pursuits of the museum.

“She wants to join the theater department and the Africana studies department with the museum,” he said. “We already have a theater district. This would serve as an anchor. … The location of this building is ideal and it gives us cultural density in Midtown.”

The Brooks board is currently working toward a move to a new museum building on the city’s riverfront that would be built on the west side of Front Street between Union and Monroe avenues and open sometime in 2022. The Overton Park building is owned by the city.

City Chief Operating Officer Doug McGowen said the city is likely to still open up the process for proposals from other organizations over a three-month period because that has been the precedent with other public facilities. But he said the Black Theater Museum concept would have an advantage in the detailed plans Bandele has already mapped out and with the commitments thus far.

“We have the opportunity to help move Memphis history forward,” Bandele said of the urgency. “This is a way that the city can be proactive and say that we are going to be moving things forward and helping equity.”

With a city commitment for the building, Bandele said he has a commitment of $350,000 in seed money from an anonymous donor to start the due diligence process. His goal is to move into the Brooks in 2023.

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