Bandele Crafts Cultural Hub for Black Artists

ANNA TRAVERSE, Special to the Daily News

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Early one clear September morning, Overton Square is still half-asleep, the parking lot next to Hattiloo Theatre empty save a few cars. In twelve hours, Hattiloo’s lobby will pulse with a throng of guests at the opening night of Fetch Clay, Make Man, the theatre’s current production. But for now, Ekundayo Bandele, Hattiloo’s founder and CEO, is leaning back in a desk chair, dreaming aloud about the year 2022.

“One of the larger goals of Hattiloo for the next five years,” as Bandele envisions it, “is making Memphis the national hub for Black theater.” Bandele’s dreams are, he acknowledges, lofty – but achievable, he believes. His strategy:  attract Black theater organizations to Memphis, increase the number of visitors who come to Memphis specifically to experience Black theater, and work with colleges and universities to make Memphis a destination for young people eager to study Black theater.

Bandele sees his role in all of this as one of ensuring that the Black cultural community “is a part of the great cultural growth and expansion that our city is undergoing.”

Photos by Ziggy Mack

He grew up in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, the only child of a single mother. From boyhood, Bandele was fired by a “very healthy imagination”: he recalls a full-fledged comic book he created in the fifth grade about a barn owl. Having been involved in the Brooklyn hip-hop community (“I thought I was going to be the next LL Cool J”) Bandele came to Memphis not knowing what to expect. But his father was here.

When Bandele arrived in Memphis in the 1990s, he found a “whirlwind of Black creativity” – he speaks of painters and creative writers, of venues for spoken-word poetry, of a Black bookstore (the now-defunct Sidewalk University Bookstore) teeming with Black intellectuals.

He found, in other words, a community – the same aspect of the theatre world that initially appealed to him. He’s written plays, and works in other genres, too – including an unpublished novel. But Bandele was drawn to the “village” of theatre: “You need the actors, the audience – a tribe of individuals who I linked with immediately to bring this creative idea to fruition.”

It was community that sustained Bandele in the early years of Hattiloo, which was named for his two daughters, Hatshepsut (“Hatti”) and Oluremi (“Loo”). Community, and the freedom to offer a “platform for Black artists who didn’t have a place. Even when we first opened, we were much more than a theatre – it started out as a cultural hub.”

He points to a who’s who of influential and inspired Memphians who helped guide the theatre to creation, and who then advised on Hattiloo’s 2014 relocation from Marshall Avenue to its gleaming new home in Overton Square. When asked what on the Hattiloo horizon excites him, Bandele immediately replies, “The hiring of [Olivier Award-winning playwright and actress] Katori Hall as our new artistic director – and the cultural image shift that Katori being here will have for Memphis.”

The new building is about more than four walls – it’s also an opportunity, Bandele says, to “pique the curiosity of people who would not otherwise go to a Black theater. And it lifts the cultural shade on Black life, allowing people to see what black theatre is, what a dream deferred might be.”

Bandele – who also serves as chairman of the Memphis Branding Initiative – matches his lofty dreams with a realistic acknowledgment of the work ahead. He asks himself, “Do you want to make a difference, or do you want to make a point?” Bandele chooses to make more difference than point – he sometimes walks through a rehearsal at Hattiloo, and an actor doesn’t know him. But, he says, “I’m a servant for actors, playwrights, designers – who don’t always know that I’m creating opportunity for them. I see myself as a servant to the cultural renaissance of the city.”

Ekundayo Bandele is a graduate of the Leadership Development Intensive at New Memphis.