Historic Hattiloo Theater is one of only 4 Black theaters in the country

Updated: Feb. 4, 2021 at 8:11 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - For 14 years now, Hattiloo Theatre’s been making history, not just in the Mid-South but also across the country.

Hattiloo Theatre, in Overton Square, is the only free-standing black repertory theater in the Mid-South which is one of only four black theatres in the country.

“I was running this like weekly type of poetry thing and open mic thing and there was this guy, this kind of boisterous white guy, that came every Thursday and he said ‘what do black people do on the weekend in Memphis?’ I said I don’t know, ask em,” said Ekundayo Bandele, Founder & CEO of Hattiloo Theatre. “I said I know what I do. And so he knew my theater background a couple of weeks later he was like do you wanna open up a black theater in Memphis. Just like that, just came right out.”

Bandele said yes, and in 2006, the original location of Hattiloo opened in the Edge District.

As fate would have it, six years later, Bandele was asked the exact same question by a Memphis businessman.

“I’m sitting in his office one day and he’s like hey you wanna build a theater. Well yeah. I didn’t know where to start, I didn’t know what to do,” he said.

Needless to say, Bandele figured it out and set his fundraising plan to build a new theater in motion.

“When we put a shovel in the ground we had 4.3 million dollars in the bank. We broke ground August 2013, we moved in June 2014.,” he said.

The theater is named after two of Bandele’s most precious heartbeats.

“Hatshepsut Bandele named after the only woman who is a pharaoh in ancient Egypt and Hatshepsut got her nickname because she couldn’t say it for like 3 or 4 years,” Bandele said, “What’s your name baby? H-h...hatti baby, just say hatti. And the other - lu is oluremi, who couldn’t say her name. She was born 4 months premature 1 pound 1 ounce. And now she is in her first year at Memphis theological seminary.”

In seven seasons at the Overton location, Bandele’s mounted more than 50 productions including Selma.

“Sometimes people group MLK. Jr. in a monolith in his I have a dream speech. Sometimes they group him in the mountain top speech but he was so much more than that, and there was a background,” he said. “Selma was not necessarily about the king but it was about the wave that was pushing king along.”

Only African American plays and musicals are performed at Hattiloo.

“We’re not a black theater for a black audience. We’re a black theater for black stories, that’s the importance here. We pull back the curtain on black truth and I take this responsibility seriously because I know I am responsible for curating your black theater experience. I’m responsible for that.,” Bandele told WMC.

There have been no live performances at Hattiloo since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, but the founder of this extraordinary theater has found a way to think outside the box while in the box.

Bandele created opera boxes with acrylic shields that have separated a safe distance from each other and the stage.

“You’ve got this real live person looking at you, making you cry, making you laugh, making you think, it’s nothing like it. And we need it,” he said.

As they say in theater, the show must go on honey.

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