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A New Vintage

Clothes and theater are in the mix at a downtown storefront.


You may or may not have noticed the place as you cursed your way along Madison Avenue from downtown through that half-mile or so of constructionless oasis near Dunlap. You were probably too busy dreading the next horrendous section of orange cones, backhoes, and men with flags to notice a multicolored neon sign reading "Threads" tucked under "The Complex" sign at 750 Madison. You probably didn't have a chance to look inside and see that Threads is a new addition to Memphis' vintage clothing scene.

If you walk into Threads, you'll soon be browsing racks of real vintage gems, all reasonably priced and hand-picked from a warehouse in Atlanta by a small, fashionable man with short dreadlocks. He calls himself Ekundayo, and he'll be the one holding a trumpet (he's teaching himself to play a little) or a stack of play scripts or maybe a bucket of paint. He'll definitely have a phone in hand. Ekundayo is managing a barrage of phone calls these days, because vintage clothing is only the beginning of his dream.

Ekundayo has big plans for this unlikely spot. He has begun the Curtain Theater, a space for drama productions, and manages "704 Place" behind Threads, a new venue for local musicians, poets, and even drag queens.

Ekundayo grew up in Memphis and Brooklyn, has written and directed 12 plays, and was named the Best New Playwright by the American Thespian Society in 1991. He has spent the past five years in Memphis devoting most of his time to his novel, Neither God Nor Master.

When a friend, Curtis Braden, obtained the space on Madison, Ekundayo and he began to research the possibilities. "At first Curtis was talking about a hip-hop clothing store," Ekundayo says. "Well, I don't wear hip-hop clothes, so I convinced him to let me go with a vintage store, because I've had trouble getting good vintage here."

With the help of Lauren Benjamin, who is partly responsible for the groovy design of the store, Ekundayo opened Threads on September 22nd as a birthday present to himself. What followed was a series of what he calls "omens," the first of which was Harry Bryce leaving the Memphis Black Repertory Theater.

"When that happened I was like, man, that's going to leave a serious void in the city. I knew the Black Rep was going to take a little time to recoup after that. That was the first omen."

The second omen occurred when a group of actors came into Threads to buy clothes and began talking to him about the expense of trying to put on new plays in Memphis and about not having any work.

"So I was looking at that void," says Ekundayo. "I was thinking, Not only are there a lot of actors in this city who don't have work, there are a lot of playwrights who don't have a venue."

That's when he decided to start the Curtain Theater. Unlike other local theaters which charge as much as $200 a night for stage-use, the Curtain space will be free to playwrights whose work is accepted for production. Ekundayo will also provide local actors, publicity, and, the best part, everyone will get paid a little, even the playwright.

"So instead of them having to go and pawn stuff to get money, they will actually be making money," says Ekundayo.

Though Ekundayo's stage is modest -- a raised platform in the middle of a converted clothing store -- it does begin the work of filling in a big hole for local struggling playwrights and actors. It means they don't have to put themselves in financial jeopardy to get the important early experience of mounting a show from the ground up.

The Curtain Theater is already booked into the summer, but as early as March playwrights will be asked to submit scripts for review by a committee of readers. Scripts chosen will be booked for a month-long run at the theater. Scripts that don't make the cut will receive feedback from the committee so that a mentoring process begins for submitters.

"The whole idea is to develop playwrights. We're not just going to reject a script. We'll give them reasons why we can't do it, and if they correct those reasons then we'll produce it," says Ekundayo.

A poetry open-mic event called "Words From the Basement" is held every Saturday at 10 p.m. in 704 Place, which is situated just behind Threads. And, indeed, the room is very basement-like -- windowless and dark, lit by candles and colored lights from the catwalk. It also has a full bar (or you can bring your own) and cozy little tea tables. As many as 200 people have shown up to listen to local performance poets offer their social commentary on everything from media exploitation and homelessness to prayer and Perkins restaurant.

Ekundayo also hopes to start a weekly drag show and wants to offer a new venue for local musicians. The idea is to become a crossroads of sorts, where Memphis' many subcultures can be represented.

"I have deep roots here. I want to give something back to Memphis," says Ekundayo.

I Remember Ghost, the Curtain Theater's debut play about three struggling artists, was written, directed, and produced by Ekundayo himself and will open this weekend. It will run until March 3rd.

For more information about any of the events held at Threads and for tickets and show times, call 522-8607. Or just stop by 750 Madison Avenue to take a look around.

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