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    Hattiloo Theatre expects creativity to blossom at new location

    Hattiloo to break ground on new theater in Overton Square

    Scott Carroll

    Mark Weber / The Commercial Appeal May 31, 2013 — Sarafina! cast members Janeka Wise (left) and Misty O’Neal prepare themselves in the cramped quarters backstage before their performance at the Hattiloo Theatre Friday evening. On June 8th the Hattiloo Theater will break ground on a new building to be built in Overton Square, creating a theater district for the city of Memphis.

    After seeing other black theater groups come and go in Memphis over the years, Hattiloo Theatre founder Ekundayo Bandele sought advice from other local theaters before founding his black repertory group in 2006.

    “Let’s start out small, and as we develop we’ll be able to maintain our program,” Bandele recalled thinking.

    Now, the Hattiloo is expanding, and it will move from a converted retail space at 656 Marshall to a 10,600-square-foot facility in Overton Square, where it will become the sixth free-standing black theater in the country.

    “Free-standing means just that: having its own building on its own land,” Bandele said. “Most other African-American theater companies are part of a larger white theater or a university and so that’s what makes us unique.”

    The ceremonial groundbreaking at the new $2.8 million Hattiloo at Monroe and Cooper is scheduled for Saturday. The building will house two theaters. The larger theater will offer flex-seating designed to accommodate the needs of a specific production, and can be altered to seat between 100 and 200 patrons. The smaller black-box theater will seat about 75 people, slightly fewer than what Hattiloo’s current location allows, according to Bandele.

    Hattiloo officials have considered relocating for several years, during which they compared the theater’s growth and needs to similar theater groups across the country, Hattiloo board member Cardell Orrin said. When Loeb Properties’ redevelopment of Overton Square began taking shape, Hattiloo officials found the area’s growing cultural influence in Memphis to be a major attraction, Orrin said.

    “We think that by having Hattiloo there, we’ll have a mixed audience. It can be kind of a gateway for diversity,” he said. “With Memphis being a majority African-American city, we really have to show a focus and appreciation and investment in that culture. And so we felt like it was time, and if we could do it, we would be making a big statement.”

    As the only black repertory group in the region, Hattiloo’s productions have attracted black groups from Atlanta and Mobile in the past, Bandele said. Its audiences are usually about 70 percent black, he said. The theater expects a similar dynamic at its new location, but it has marketing and production strategies in mind to reach other groups.

    “What we’ll do marketing-wise is make certain that if we’re heavy on the black side one year, we’ll do a little more marketing in the white community,” Bandele said.

    Orrin said Hattiloo will also offer more mainstream productions — like “Grease” or “Steel Magnolias” — to broaden its audience.

    The new Hattiloo will also host non-theater events in its lobby and courtyard.

    “It’s really being thought of as a community space, not just for theater,” Orrin said, noting Hattiloo’s neighborhood outreach efforts include park performances and participation in black arts festivals.

    The city of Memphis provided $1.35 million in funding for the project. Other donors include ArtsMemphis, the Plough Foundation, the J.W. and Kathy Gibson Foundation, Hyde Family Foundations, River City Links Inc., Shelby County Links Inc., and Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital.

    More than 200 individual donors also gave money to Hattiloo, one of whom matched about $500,000 the theater raised from the city’s African-American community.

    For the performers and producers of Hattiloo, the new theater will offer more avenues for creativity and expression, said Hattiloo director and actress Patricia Smith.

    Smith has directed six plays for Hattiloo, starred in others and been involved in stage management and costume design for some productions over the past five years. Before then, she toured the country with a faith-based performance group based in Knoxville.

    A bigger stage means bigger casts, she said, and the larger audience the new Hattiloo can accommodate could lead to the proverbial “big break” in the career of a local performer.

    “It opens up a wider venue for a lot of actors and actresses who really want this as a career and are hoping that somebody like a talent scout would have an opportunity to see their work,” she said.
    Scripps Lighthouse

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