All the furniture in Zora's Lounge is curvy and feminine. Ekundayo Bandele, the charismatic executive director of the Hattiloo Theater, a small 70-seat, black repertory theater located in the Edge district, says all the swirls offset the fact that everything else about Zora's and the Hattiloo is so boxy and straight.
The lounge and theater, which open for business this week with a production of Samm-Art Williams' Tony Award-winning drama Home, is Bandele's second attempt to create a new kind of live-performance space on downtown's artsy eastern border, his second attempt to throw some curves into the increasingly adventurous but relatively square world of Memphis theater.
In February 2002, it seemed that the 30-year-old Bandele had hit upon a winning combination. Threads, his vintage clothing store on Madison Avenue, next door to the popular soul-food destination Leech's Family Restaurant, was doing a steady business. The store, which helped finance Bandele's creative habits, had been designed to easily transform into an intimate in-the-round performance space called the Curtain Theater. It opened with I Remember Ghost, an overwrought but linguistically adventurous collection of three short plays written and directed by, and in one case featuring, Bandele. The plays occasionally erred on the side of coffee-shop pretension, but the writer's voice was sincere and engaging, and the Curtain Theater's seats were full most nights.
Between Bandele's theatrical skills and his entrepreneurial spirit, it seemed as though Threads and the Curtain Theater had a bright future, but shortly after I Remember Ghost closed, Bandele shut down the entire operation. Taking his tortured, final bows, he told his fans that it had all been "too successful."
"I'm a writer," Bandele says. "And I thought I would be able to take my laptop into the store, and when I wasn't busy, I could write. But I couldn't. I was either tending the store or out shopping for the store, and when you're an artist, anything that keeps you from your work makes you unhappy."
Bandele's unhappiness was intensified by the ongoing trolley construction outside his store/theater. It was noisy, dusty, and inconvenient. It made parking difficult. It forced businesses in the construction zone to tighten their belts and get creative in order to survive. Many, like Leech's, didn't.
"We had jackhammers running all day long," Bandele says. "And MLGW was always coming over turning stuff on and turning stuff off. It was impossible."
Now the trolley construction is complete, and with the addition of restaurants such as the popular coffee shop Quetzal, the Edge neighborhood finally seems to be fulfilling its promise. Even Off Beale Live, the exotic dance club which recently opened in the neighborhood, has an adjoining steak house.
Bandele spent the years between closing Threads and opening the Hattiloo working on a novel, which he completed in 2005. The frustration of finding a publisher and the desire to develop a forum to address the never-ending issues of segregation and racial discrimination led him to reconsider the possibility of starting a new theater.
"When I asked [Playhouse on the Square's executive producer] Jackie Nichols if he could help," Bandele says, "he asked if I knew how many people had approached him about starting a black repertory theater." According to Bandele, Nichols was dubious but open and helpful. He and longtime Playhouse actor/benefactor Gene Katz walked him through the process of getting his board of directors together and his not-for-profit status in order. Nichols, who is currently engaged in a major capital campaign to build a new state-of-the art theater at the corner of Cooper and Union, introduced him to potential donors and helped him find equipment and even scripts for the first season.
"It's been incredible," Bandele says, praising the many people who have helped him take the Hattiloo from the idea stage to reality in nine short months. "Raising money has actually been easy."
The Hattiloo Theater is composed of Zora's Lounge, named in honor of African-American author Zora Neale Hurston, a small rehearsal space, and an intimate auditorium with a proscenium stage. There are no bad seats, but the size of the space and limited wings will make larger shows next to impossible and force designers and directors to be creative.
"We're really happy with the space," Bandele says, acknowledging that a lot of good work comes out of tiny neighborhood theaters in New York and Chicago.