An interview with Ekundayo Bandele, Founder and CEO of Hattiloo Theatre.
In December 2019, we had the opportunity to interview Ekundayo Bandele, the founder and CEO of Hattiloo Theatre in Memphis, Tennessee. Hattiloo, as the theatre is affectionately called, is the only freestanding Black repertory theatre in five surrounding states. We’ve known “Ek” since we moved to Memphis is 2010 and have witnessed first-hand the influence he has had in strengthening and growing Black Theatre in Memphis and beyond. Listen in as Mel Shaw of Saad&Shaw interviews Ekundayo Bandele on the state of Black Theatre in America and what lies ahead.
Mel Shaw: How would you summarize the state of Black Theatre as we know it today?
Ekundayo Bandele: That is a double sided coin. The infrastructure of Black Theatre right now is very skeletal compared to where it was in the 1980’s and 1990’s, meaning that there aren’t a lot of brick-and-mortar institutions and there aren’t a lot of Black Theatre companies or organizations with sizeable budgets enough to put a number of Black artists to work. So that is one side of the coin. The other side of the coin is that Black playwrights are doing very well. When you look at the state of Black Theatre with people like Katori Hall, Dominique Morisseau, Lydia Diamond, and Marcus Gardley. You have all of these Black playwrights who are getting works on Broadway, they are also going into TV, going into film. They are doing very well.
Back in the day before predominantly white institutions (PWIs) were significantly producing work, August Wilson and other playwrights really depended upon that Black infrastructure. But today that infrastructure is so skeletal that playwrights have to depend on PWIs. So, in one sense, Black Theatre is thriving, and, in another sense, Black Theatre is decaying.
Mel Shaw: The issue of diversity – how do you balance that in relation to developing and sustaining the Black Theatre?
Ekundayo Bandele: When it comes to diversity of course there are several kinds. Starting off with the black and white relationship, my philosophy is that here in Memphis there are at least seven theatres where white actors can go and act. And that is in a city that is 64% black. So those seven theaters have very expensive theatres, and are doing so many plays. There are so many opportunities for white directors, actors, stage managers, and lighting designers to get work. So Hattiloo being the sole Black Theatre here in Memphis, we feel it is our responsibility to provide work for Black artists. This is part of our mission, and also those Black artists don’t have enough avenues for income or to develop their art. Now, we are looking to partner more with a Latino organization called Cazateatro. They are the state’s only bilingual theatre. We have been working with them for about six months on a few small collaborations. We also had a proposal a couple of years ago to partner with OUT Memphis which is our LGBTQ community center. One of the reasons that was important to us is because certain playwrights such Marcus Gardley mostly focus on the Black experience within the LGBTQ community. We found that this is a part of the Black community that we don’t really get to shed a lot of light on. Diversity comes in various forms, but our main focus is serving Black theatre practitioners in Shelby County.
Ekundayo Bandele: My wife and I were headed to Hampton Virginia to have Thanksgiving with my in-laws in 2005. It was in September 2005 when Michael de Caetani, my founding board chair, planted the seed for a Black theatre. And so we started bouncing some of the more popular names around. The August Wilson Theatre, the Zora Neale Hurston Theatre, things along those lines. Michael and I really decided that we wanted the theatre to take on a personality. To not just be a place, but to have an emotional connection to the people that it serves. So my wife and I were driving back from Hampton and we were taking notes about what would a Black Theatre look like, what would we do, so on and so forth. And Nicole somehow ended up turning around to our girls, one of whom is nick-named Hatti (short for Hatshepsut) and our daughter Oluleima whose nickname is Loo and somehow, she put those two names together in a way that it sounded like one name. It was “Hattiloo” do this or “Hattiloo” stop doing that…. and we just grabbed hold of that. We were like – there’s something about that that sounds right. So we spent time on the drive working out how would we spell it? Would it be Hattie Lou, HattiLou. Then we settled on Hattiloo because we really liked the way it looked with two t’s in the middle and two o’s at the end. It really gives it a symmetry. And when I came back and shared the name with Michael we started working with this graphic artist named Desiree Safar and she was coming up with the logo and we hit a problem as when she was working on the logo she invariably made the logo into a Black girl because the name Hattiloo reminded her of a Black girl. And I was like, “no this is going to be a serious theatre.” So we landed on a Shona sculpture and we borrowed that image for our logo. And so Hattiloo came about during a drive. It sounded right. And even now, you’ll notice that we don’t use Hattiloo Theatre a lot anymore. We just use Hattiloo and that is getting back to that emotional connection to our patrons.
Mel Shaw: How did you build a theatre from the ground up when so many say we don’t have the resources for theatre? How did you overcome all that?
Ekundayo Bandele: Well, one of the things is that I am a serial entrepreneur which means that all of my adult life I have created my own revenue stream. Back in college I taught myself how to make homemade incense. I sold plates off of my hotplate, cooking things. I ended up washing cars with this guy Alvin Williams. When I got to Memphis, I continued to wash cars with a company called Bandele Wash Works. And then I opened a vintage clothing store on Madison Avenue that I called Threads. And I created events, the most popular of which was called the Speak Easy in 2004 at the Jack Robinson Studio downtown. So when it came to Hattiloo it was to me just another entrepreneurial venture.
I’m one of those who says I would rather bet on myself than bet on the stock market. I knew I had the fortitude, the vision and the energy to make this thing successful. But another thing that I did, was I interviewed I don’t know how many people who I know have been involved in the Black theatre scene in Memphis since the 1970s. I asked them what their challenges were, and what went wrong. And some of them were defunct. I talked with some of the funders. I asked them why did they lose funding?
I made my roadmap with all of those lessons: I said we need this insurance agent because that one didn’t work; we need an HR person; we need this; we need that. We set it up for success even though in the beginning I wasn’t sure it would be successful because of the reasons you mentioned – a lack of resources, so on and so forth. However, there were staunch supporters. And another thing, it goes back to that emotional connection. People were going to Hattiloo like they were going to a person’s house. They were going to sit in a familiar person’s living room, and they were going to watch a play. And so we actually developed some strong bonds with individuals and the City that actually help propel the theatre forward to this day.
Mel Shaw: What were the challenges for you in developing Hattiloo?
Ekundayo Bandele: The biggest challenge and the most obvious one was funding. There was a theatre here that was under the auspices of a white theatre and then when they went out on their own, they folded. When they folded it made the news. And so the biggest challenge was a donor giving money, contributing money to Hattiloo with the faith that Hattiloo was going to be here next year. For the first two years we were unable to sell subscriptions because subscriptions are paid for before a season starts, and we had to prove that we were going to here. If you bought that subscription you had to know you could cash in those tickets.
Another thing I learned was that there wasn’t a lot of familiarity with Black Theatre in Memphis, meaning that August Wilson wasn’t a household name. Black Theatre began and ended with A Raisin in the Sun. There’s so much other work out there that is not known. So another challenge was educating the population without talking down to them, without wagging our finger and saying, “you don’t know this, we can teach you this and bla, bla, bla.” The way we approached this is that we said we are going to be in this together and we are going to learn with you.
It’s like when I wrote a novel and I remember an agent telling me – cause I was stuck in it and I was creating all these drafts – and she said, “your audience needs to see you grow.” So we kind of lifted the curtain back and let our people see us grow. That way we weren’t talking down to them. We were showing them that we were learning arm-in-arm. And another thing that goes back to funding was that foundations and corporations that have supported past Black Theatre venues in Memphis were disappointed: how were we going to turn that around? The way that we did that was by accepting much smaller grant amounts than our white counterparts, understanding that we were on a proving ground, that there was going to be a period of time where people were going to distrust Hattiloo’ s future. So that was also a challenge that we had to overcome.
Ekundayo Bandele: The secret was collaboration. Believe it or not when we first opened, we sought opportunities to collaborate with every legacy organization in this City. We collaborated with Opera Memphis, with Memphis Symphony Orchestra, with Ballet Memphis, with Playhouse on the Square. And here’s why we did that: those art forms are established, and they are known in Memphis. So by having a Black presence within those art forms we developed a sense of pride and respect for Black Theatre through Hattiloo. One of the ways that we really developed that was through these partnerships, and not just through the nonprofit arts organizations, but also through civic and social organizations. With sororities, fraternities, book clubs, with churches. Really bringing in these Black institutions that had a number of members who were participants and wanted a reason to dress up and go out. They wanted a reason to go see something that they read about or heard about on Broadway in New York. They wanted to be able to take their children to a place where they could see images of themselves. So we developed that relationship by first listening to what the Black community wanted, which was diverse offerings in Black Theatre, and by legitimizing our product by partnering with legacy organizations.
Mel Shaw: In terms of original material and material that are standard or already published, what are the percentages?
Ekundayo Bandele: I would say of the performances in the past, less than 10% were original. And there are a number of Black playwrights in Memphis. The reason being that we wanted to produce plays that had won a Tony, an Obie mainly because we wanted to show the quality of the work we were going to be putting on stage. Another thing , me as a playwright, I didn’t want Hattiloo to become a shrine to my work.
Next year we are launching something called “The Memphis Series.” This will be a partnering with local Black playwrights and giving them the technical resources and some financial resources to produce their plays here at Hattiloo Theatre. In the past, we were on that proving ground. We didn’t want people to say, “Oh that’s a local theatre.” We wanted people to say, “Oh that’s a theatre that’s doing things out of DC, New York, Chicago, Minneapolis…” A very low percentage were original plays on our stage, but that changes next year.
Mel Shaw: Beyond Memphis, what other cities do you see the Black Theatre gaining momentum?
Ekundayo Bandele: There are a lot of theatres that are kind of like Hattiloo in that they are stand alone theatres. If I had to put my finger on a city that has really developed a Black Theatre, whether those companies struggle or not, it would be Chicago. I remember a time – and it may still be the case – where there were five Black theatres in Chicago. Not all of them with a building of course, but they were doing Black work. In New York it is so expensive. You have a theatre in Harlem, a theatre in Brooklyn, but you don’t really have a lot more. You do have companies doing things, but I would have to say Chicago is the best scene for Black theatre.
Mel Shaw: Back to the development of the Hattiloo Theatre, give me three things that you would consider lessons learned as you reflect on your journey.
Ekundayo Bandele: The biggest lesson learned was the importance of delegating. Of really understanding your strengths, and being okay with your weaknesses. And finding individuals who love what you are weak at. That was the hardest thing. Because I started Hattiloo when I was 33, I was still hardheaded, and locked horns with older individuals, and really didn’t take the advice or as much of it as I should have. But over the years I have learned that the key to success is building a team where people are placed in positions that they absolutely love, and they believe and share your vision for the organization.
Mel Shaw: The bottom line for the theatre is to produce and related activities, but what other things does Hattiloo offer to the community?
Ekundayo Bandele: Our panel discussions. Before every play we take a theme. Let’s talk about the play we have coming in January 2020. its called Detroit 67 which is about the Detroit riots of 1967 which is written by Dominque Morisseau. Before that play, we are having a panel discussion titled Grassroots Organizations and Protest. That panel discussion is bringing on activists from across the city to talk about their activism and then open themselves up to a conversation with the audience. We do these panels eight times a year. Those themes are typically things we don’t talk about. We may talk about them around the dinner table, or with some friends at church, but they aren’t general points of conversation.
Another thing is that we have a very robust in-and-after school program. Right now we are in about five schools. In 2020 that will double to 10 schools. We are revamping our programming for youth. We’ve had a youth theatre that has kind of declined over the past few years and we are restructuring it so that the kids in our community get excellent training. And every year we offer a symposium. This year we offered a symposium where there were artists who were not just in theatre: there were writers, film makers, actors, all of whom were accomplished so that local Memphians could have access to those individuals, to hear their stories, to understand their journey, and to ask for advice. Those are some of the things we do.
Mel Shaw: In terms of talent, is there a talent pool here in Memphis, or do you have to go outside of Memphis to find the people to do the productions?
Ekundayo Bandele: Seldom do we have to go out of town. Very seldom. there is a thriving and hungry Black Theatre community in Memphis so ninety five percent are cast with locals.
Ekundayo Bandele: I think it is through things such as the panel discussions. Through the panel discussions you can purchase tickets to the play for $10. When we opened our doors in June 2014, we had a free opening celebration. That celebration lasted 16 hours. And we brought in dancers, actors, the opera, musicians, filmmakers. There was all of this free programming throughout the whole building to celebrate the opening of Hattiloo Theatre. It is events like those where you swing open the doors and you welcome in anyone and everyone in the general public and say, “this is your home.” Every year we have a slogan, for season 12 our slogan was “It’s Your Hattiloo.” Its about giving over ownership, and by listening to the community, and by saying, “we’re not smarter than you. You tell us through ticket sales and subscriptions what you want to see.” And then each season we adjust our season based on public opinion in the form of ticket sales.
Mel Shaw: What do you see as the future for Black Theatre and especially for Hattiloo Theatre say over the next five years, ten years. What is your vision for Hattiloo?
Ekundayo Bandele: My vision is three-fold. One, that we have a stronger relationship with celebrities acting in our plays. That brings something that is intangible to our city. Two, we want to commission original works. A commission is where you go out to an individual playwright and say, “we are going to pay you x number of dollars to write this play, and then we are going to premier the play, and then it will go forth and prosper.” That is going to show us as an organization that is contributing to the Black Theatre cannon. Three, we are going to focus on the “modern day” Black Southern experience. I am the product of the Great Migration when my parents moved to New York. I returned to the South. My father is from Memphis and my mother is from Jackson, Mississippi. There are a number of young people, millennials and Gen -Xers who have returned to the south. Well what does that culture look like? What does that integration look like? There are a lot of interesting stories to be found in Texas, in Arkansas, in Florida, in Tennessee, in Alabama. We really want to concentrate of those areas.
Mel Shaw: Is there a story that is burning in your belly or in your head that you would like to convert into a play that you have not gotten to yet? Can you share that secret with us?
Ekundayo Bandele: Honestly, I was commissioned this year to write a play about the Confederate statues coming down in Memphis. It will be titled “Tumbling Down” and it will premier in May of 2021. What I love about this and what I am excited about is that it’s a balance that I have to approach in writing this play. Because the thing in Memphis is that the government did a lot to take down the statues, and the grassroots organizations coined the hashtag TakeThemDown901. They also did a lot. But the two didn’t see themselves working in concert. I am excited about working on this play because I want to show that balance of powers. And also to document an important moment in Memphis history. This goes back to that focus on modern day Southern Black stories. It’s going to be a fictious play based on fact. It’s taking a lot of research. I’m having a lot of interviews and reading a lot of articles and I’m really enjoying it. One of the primary reasons I am enjoying it is because I am getting back to my roots as a playwright.
Mel Shaw: Who has been your role model over the years as you began to do all the wonderful things that you do? Can you name me that one person who has really been your guidepost?
Ekundayo Bandele: It’s been two people at different times. When I opened Hattiloo it was a man named Tony Horn who founded the Memphis Black Repertory Theatre that closed in early 2000. He gave me a lot of direction, opened up a lot of doors, and really plugged me into the Black Theatre scene in Memphis. Then around 2013, it became Tony Award Winning Actor and Director Rubin Santiago Hudson who really keeps me focused on the importance of Black Theatre and the necessity for excellence.
Mel Shaw: If you were talking to a bunch of young people who were thinking of pursuing a career in the theatre and especially the Black Theatre, what advice would you share with them at this time?
Ekundayo Bandele: Manage your growth. Understand that more money comes with more challenges. More opportunities come with more challenges. And some people want to enter into an opportunity and take advantage of it without thinking about how they are going to manage it, and how is it going to change them, and are they capable of sustaining the change after it happens.
Mel Shaw: What does success mean to you?
Ekundayo Bandele: Success of course means first and foremost means sustainability: that we are around to serve our population. Success also means giving the artist the artistic experience of excellence that they need to do their best work. Then success also looks like individuals being unable to purchase a ticket to a Hattiloo performance because that performance is so popular.
Mel Shaw: When you were building Hattiloo, were there times when you would say, “I can’t do this,” and, if so, what caused you to go beyond that?
Ekundayo Bandele: I can’t think of a moment where I ever said that or felt that internally.
Mel Shaw: You’re a CEO and totally involved in the community, you’re a world traveler, your writing plays and all that – how do you balance that?
Ekundayo Bandele: I think one of the things is that I am a decisive individual. I make decisions easily. I am a morning person, so I am able to get a lot of work done uninterrupted. I get up every morning around 3:30 and I get my best work done between 4:30am and noon, and that is the time when most people are really getting their gaskets warm for a day of work. And then, prioritizing. Everyday I have a to-do list that I make for myself and that is one of the ways that I am able to see what is important and what needs attention. Another thing I am getting better at as I get older is giving myself time to relax. I remember when my wife came into one of our rooms and said, “You’ve been sitting there watching tv for two-to-three hours why don’t you do something?” And I said, “I am doing something, I’m relaxing.” I am really learning the benefit of relaxing which sharpens your saw and makes you so much better when you come back to your job.
Mel Shaw: This is my last question I’m going to ask you. You’re getting ready to travel out of the country, right?
Ekundayo Bandele: Yes, I’m going to Milan Italy.
Mel Shaw: Can you tell us how that happened and what the impact is of that?
Ekundayo Bandele: I’m the chairman of Memphis Brand which used to be Memphis Brand Initiative and one of our chief responsibilities is to ensure that Memphis controls the narrative of what it is and where it is going. There was an Italian delegation that was traveling through the South and stopped in Memphis. With me being the chair, I was one of the people who greeted them. During that reception I met a person from the township of Milan. The reception was here at Hattiloo and they were able to see the building and see our advertisements. We stayed in touch with the people in Italy and they expressed a genuine desire to learn more about the Black Southern experience. Back in April 2019 we took a play, a musical called Ain’t Misbehavin’ which really documents the Black experience in music. They enjoyed it so much that they are bringing us back in January 2020 to produce the play Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. Again, its about those relationships and friendships, and looking at those opportunities and saying, “yes, we can manage it and we can be successful.”
Mel Shaw: This has just been fantastic! I really appreciate your sharing this time.
Saad&Shaw has worked with Ekundayo Bandele and Hattiloo Theatre over the years providing fundraising and fund development counsel. We are proud to share this success story with you.
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Copyright 2020 – Mel and Pearl Shaw
When you are ready to grow your fundraising, prepare for a fundraising campaign, or increase board engagement we are here to help. Call us at (901) 522-8727. www.saadandshaw.com.