It" is the mysterious quality of absolute attraction. If we say a person has "it," we usually mean that, in addition to any easily identifiable charms, there's a little something extra, some ineffable bonus that makes an "it" person stand out, even among the outstanding. Ekundayo Bandele, the Hattiloo Theatre's tireless founding director, has that ineffable something. He's had it since he was a dreadlocked 20-something pounding the pavement, slipping fliers for his original play, If Scrooge Was a Brother, under the windshield wipers of parked cars. He still had it as a 30-something, when he opened Threads, a short-lived vintage clothing store on Madison Avenue that turned into the Curtain Theatre, a tiny in-the-round performance space at night.
Now, as the 40-year-old artist turned producer prepares to launch a capital campaign to create Memphis' first fully endowed performing arts space dedicated primarily to staging works that reflect the African-American experience, other people are finally starting to recognize "it."
Late last year, Bandele brought more than 100 supporters to City Hall to back a proposal put forward by city council members Shea Flinn and Jim Strickland to build a $16 million parking garage and floodwater-detention pond in Overton Square. If approved, the city-funded project would simultaneously address flooding concerns in the Lick Creek basin and trigger a $19 million rehabilitation and development plan devised by Loeb Properties that promises to transform the languishing Overton Square into a spruced-up theater district populated by restaurants, shops, and bars. That development, inspired in part by Playhouse on the Square's impressive new facility at the northeast corner of Cooper and Union, will in turn facilitate the six-year-old Hattiloo Theatre's move from its current location in a converted shop front on Marshall Avenue into a custom-built $4 million playhouse in Midtown.
After the measure passed and the reality of what had just happened settled in, Bandele turned to Flinn for advice, asking the councilman if he had any suggestions for helping move the project forward.
"Yeah," Flinn answered. "Don't get hit by a bus."
Flinn, who majored in theater at Rhodes College before going to law school, thinks Bandele brings something special to the table and that any plan for remaking the Hattiloo in an Overton Square theater district would be less attractive without him.
A recently completed feasibility study showing it would be possible to raise between $3.5 million and $4 million for a new theater in Overton Square pegged Bandele's extreme hands-on management style as both a strength and as a potential weakness.
"I really do need to staff up," Bandele says, agreeing with the report's findings. "I know I can't do everything by myself." Ironically, he says this while standing behind the Hattiloo's lobby bar (which he built), only a few feet away from the set for August Wilson's play Two Trains Running, which he's currently building. Bandele's used to doing too many things at once and doing them all well.
The Meeting, a one-act play about a fictional encounter between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., had played for a small preview audience the night before, and, as the curtain speech was being delivered, water started pouring into the Hattiloo's smaller studio theater from a pipe that had burst in a neighboring apartment. In accordance with tradition, the show went on, but the morning after found furniture piled on top of furniture, wet vacs howling, and Bandele, in the center of the chaos, orchestrating an emergency response while single-handedly manning the theater's box office, giving an interview, and preparing to meet with a group of architects who would pitch their competing visions for the new theater.
No matter how hectic things became, every caller ordering advance tickets to Two Trains Running received a thorough description of the play, a brief rundown on the author, and guarantees they would enjoy the experience.
"It's that hands-on approach that makes Ekundayo and the Hattiloo different," says Jackie Nichols, recalling previous efforts to launch a black repertory company in Memphis.
The joy Bandele takes in scenic construction and general day-to-day maintenance makes for easy comparisons to Nichols, Playhouse on the Square's founding executive. Nichols opened his new $12.5 million flagship theater in January 2009 and has been coaching his soon-to-be-neighbor through the process of building a theater from the ground up.
"I just want to share what I learned and help make his process as smooth for Ekundayo as possible," Nichols says.
The new Hattiloo will be modeled after Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre, in the same way Playhouse on the Square was modeled after the Steppenwolf Theatre. The Lookingglass is a uniquely versatile black box designed for a minimalist company that's known for creating strikingly visual productions. Bandele was impressed by the Lookingglass' ability to transform itself based on the needs of a given play.
"It can be set up as a proscenium, tennis court, or in the round," he says. "I told the architects I wanted the whole theater to be like that too, not just the stage. I want to be able to move walls in the lobby. You know, I'll go crazy if I can't completely change things every now and then."
Nichols also admires the Lookingglass model but offers a bit of practical advice: "It's great to be able to have so much control over the playing space, but I reminded Ekundayo that the Lookingglass has professional crews whose job it is to change the seating from show to show." This, he says, is just one example of how some design choices may be more expensive than they initially seem.
Bandele and Nichols aren't waiting for the completion of the new Hattiloo to give Memphians a taste of the new neighborhood dynamic. Playhouse on the Square and the Hattiloo are partnering for the regional premiere of The Mountaintop, an acclaimed play by Memphis native Katori Hall. The Mountaintop, which is scheduled to open at Circuit Playhouse in February 2013, won the Olivier Award for best new play, following its 2010 world premiere in London. The fictionalized account of Martin Luther King Jr.'s last night on earth opened on Broadway in September 2011, starring Samuel L. Jackson as King and Angela Bassett as a mysterious woman who brings him coffee and strange news.
Bandele isn't a typical Memphis arts administrator. He didn't major in theater or arts management. He didn't even graduate from college, and in spite of his many successes, this sometimes bothers him. "If you don't have a degree or technical learning, then you haven't been approved," he says. Having grown up in a broken home and splitting time between Memphis and Brooklyn's Fort Green neighborhood, he has been plagued by issues of identity and authenticity.
Before opening the Hattiloo and discovering his purpose, Bandele kept his head above water and later supported a family by working a variety of what he describes as "hustles." He sold home-made incense sticks on the street. He loaded his grandfather's old pickup truck with trash cans full of soapy water and started a mobile car-detailing business. Eventually, he would add art dealer to his resume. Throughout it all he was an obsessive reader, who continued to write original plays and try to produce them whenever, wherever, and however he could.
"But back then, the whole play thing was just another hustle," Bandele says of his early work.
"I think the street smarts Ekundayo picked up doing all of that has a lot to do with his success," says Memphis actor Jonathan Underwood, who has appeared in several Hattiloo shows, including Spunk, The Colored Museum, and a beautifully adapted production of Moliere's Tartuffe. Underwood, who also took a lead role in Tracy Letts' Superior Donuts at Circuit Playhouse and received glowing reviews for his performance as Jacob the butler/housemaid in Theatre Memphis' La Cage aux Folles, also admits that, while intrigued, he initially underestimated the value of a black theater company.
"I was always pretty color-blind about it all," he says. "I never did exclusively black plays or exclusively gay plays. Even my first show at the Hattiloo was Macbeth, which was a collaboration with Rhodes College and had some diversity to it."
What Underwood soon realized, however, was that whenever he worked at the Hattiloo, he came into contact with more African-American performers that he'd never seen before.
"I realized I'd never met any of these people, because they hadn't been cast in this season's 'black' play at Playhouse or Theatre Memphis. And if you don't get cast, you may have to wait another year to try again," he says.
This uniting of what has been a fragmented community has always been one of Bandele's primary goals.
Underwood's views are echoed by Leslie Reddick, a Memphis-area theater professional who is currently developing original works for the Black Arts Alliance. Reddick describes the Hattiloo's move to Overton Square as "one of the best things that could happen."
"The other theaters will benefit as well," she says. "The actors, designers, and techies will have access to one another in a way that has not happened here in Memphis. We can be an example of how the people of Memphis can move beyond the stigma of racism and truly enjoy working and living together."
Reddick's description of what the Hattiloo's move to Midtown might foster is more than a useful quote to include with grant applications. Bandele knows what it's like to struggle in what has been described as post-racial America. He knows what it feels like to be the only person of color in a room full of arts executives. Now he's in a position to give back by redefining the mainstream and nurturing artists whose work might otherwise fall through the cracks.
The Hattiloo experience is often described as "intimate." That is sometimes nothing more than a flowery way of saying that the repurposed performance space is cozy but cramped. But size is a relative concept, and there are other perspectives.
"For me, the Hattiloo is a big theater," says Gio Lopez, who founded Cazateatro in 2006, after moving to Memphis from Costa Rica, where she had been employed as an actor and director. She contacted other actors and artists by taking out ads in a Spanish-language newspaper, and with no facility of its own, the group started rehearsing plays outdoors at Shelby Farms.
"Then winter came, and it was too cold to stay outdoors," Lopez recalls. So they rehearsed and performed in apartments, living rooms, and in spaces provided by Latino-owned businesses. The bilingual company's name — a play on the words theater, house, and hunting — reflected its challenges. In October 2011, Cazateatro will celebrate Day of the Dead with performances at the Hattiloo. It is the beginning of what Lopez hopes to be a mutually beneficial relationship that will only strengthen with time and the move to Overton Square.
"You know, if you put enough minorities together, you have the majority," Bandele says. "It's important for me to help Gio in the same way that people like Jackie Nichols and Dorothy Gunther Pugh of Ballet Memphis have helped me. And hopefully, on down the road, Gio will be able to help somebody else the way I've reached out to her."
Bandele says the new Hattiloo is slated to open in early 2014 but characteristically adds that, given his way, it will be open by the end of 2013. The renovation of Overton Square is slated to begin in April.