Dedicated to what an online mission statement describes as “supporting black stories through excellent and innovative theater,” Overton Square’s Hattiloo Theater plans to open a satellite location in North Memphis by the end of 2023.
The Hattiloo companion site would occupy the so-called “Old Brick Church”, an abandoned historic building at 299 Chelsea which was founded just before the Civil War as the Third Presbyterian Church.
Developed in conjunction with the Community Redevelopment Agency, the project is a brick-and-mortar companion to another ambitious Hattiloo partnership initiated by the theater’s tireless founder, Ekundayo Bandele.
Bandele, 50, will spend much of the next two years in Atlanta, where he is pursuing a long-delayed bachelor’s degree in theater at Morehouse College. After that, he said, he plans to get a master’s degree at another institution (Morehouse doesn’t offer graduate degrees in theater).
The diplomas are the prelude to another Hattiloo partnership. Together with college president Vernell Bennett-Fairs, Bandele plans to help develop an innovative bachelor’s degree program in black theater studies at LeMoyne-Owen College that would represent the historic black school’s first crash course in drama studies. .
“It’s something we’re exploring,” Bennett-Fairs said. “Ekundayo is a visionary, and this would be the beginning of us becoming at least a minor in the study of black theater.”
She said the course would build on an already active partnership between Hattiloo and LeMoyne-Owen that included student theater internships and college theater workshops.
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Although Bandele has decades of first-hand knowledge and practical experience in acting, he would need a master’s degree to become officially attached to LeMoyne-Owen, which has academic standards for its teachers.
Bandele said he planned to get a college degree after moving from his hometown of Brooklyn to Memphis in the early 1990s, but became so busy working to support his young family and pursuing various initiatives on stage that he put his formal education on the back burner. .
The most enduring and important of these performing initiatives is Hattiloo, a non-profit theater founded in 2005 to promote and produce works by black creators that address black experience and perception. Describing itself as “the only free-standing black repertory theater in five surrounding states,” Hattiloo moved in 2014 from its cramped original home on Marshall Avenue near Sun Studio to its current location, a new $3.3 million building. dollars near Overton Square which puts it in the Midtown theater district.
Bandele said Hattiloo typically hosts so many classes and productions at various stages of development that he became convinced that complementary space was needed, to provide a home especially for children’s and senior theater programs, and to theater opportunities for people with disabilities.
Meanwhile, residents responding to a Community Redevelopment Agency survey had identified the historic Presbyterian Church as an investment priority for what CRA Chairman Andrew Murray called the tax district of the “large residential area” which encompasses neighborhoods such as Smokey City, New Chicago and the Pinch.
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One of the few pre-Civil War buildings still standing in Memphis, the church — used during the war as a hospital to occupy Union troops — is in relatively good structural condition and seemed like a logical candidate for renovation. conversion into a community or arts centre. , says Murray.
Bandele immediately identified the site as ideal, during a tour of potential Hattiloo locations with representatives of the ARC, the city-county agency that allocates special dollars to the tax district for projects to eliminate the burning, repurposing distressed buildings and providing affordable housing in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. neighborhoods of the Uptown and Binghampton neighborhoods.
“As soon as I walked in I knew this was the right place,” Bandele said. For one thing, the church sanctuary “is a wide open space, and that’s exactly what theaters need – they need a wide width for the stage, with no obstructions.”
Murray said the plan was to redevelop the space and open it in Hattiloo by the end of 2023. He said the project had yet to go to tender, he therefore did not want to estimate the cost, but noted that an elevator will need to be added to connect the basement of the structure and the two upper floors.
He said most of the building had already been cleaned and “stabilized”, except for the bell tower.
Bandele said the secondary Hattiloo would not require the hiring of new staff and would essentially operate as a wing several miles away from the primary, so that different productions and classes could take place in relatively large spaces. “We’re still going to operate within our means, but we won’t have to work around the main stage schedule anymore.”
“I’m really excited about it,” Murray said of the project. “He will be a huge asset to Memphis.”