Ekundayo Bandele was going to bars, clubs, and coffeehouses all across Memphis, and he was sick of it.
"Pretty much I got tired of being the only black face in a white audience or seeing one white face among a whole bunch of black faces," he says.
So he decided to do something about it. Bandele started the Speakeasy, a rotating group of poets, musicians, comedians, and actors who perform at 8 p.m. every Thursday at the Jack Robinson Gallery in the South Main Arts District.
If the Speakeasy really were a Prohibition-era bar, the password would be "diversity." The goal each week is to have four or five completely different performers on stage.
"Different ethnically, racially, in age, gender, and even sexual preference," Bandele says. "We want each program to be as diverse as possible, and we do that to pull a diverse audience. If the audience ever shifts one way or the other, I'm going to say that the Speakeasy is a failure."
So far the mix has been balanced, with audiences of 80 or so being half white and half black. The type of performers has been varied as well. "It's about integrating performance art and introducing spoken-work artists to folk musicians and comedians to classical pianists," Bandele says.
Bandele, who splits his time between New York and Memphis, used to hold performances at his store, Threads Vintage Clothing, before it closed. He's also had seven plays produced and runs a mobile car-detailing business called Bandele's Washworks.
For the Speakeasy, Bandele searches for performers at places such as the Full Moon Club, Nappy by Nature, and Java Cabana. He found Keith Green, a guitarist who once played with Albert King, on the street.
"He was just sitting outside of Café Francisco picking the guitar," Bandele says. "He was this old white cat who looked like a bluesman. I said, 'Man, you sound good,' and I told him what I did. He got excited, and now he's going to play here."
Before someone plays the Speakeasy, they must agree to a few ground rules. First, artists aren't allowed to introduce themselves or talk about what they are going to perform. "We're taking the ego out of it. It's only your art. That's it. Nothing else," Bandele explains.
Second, the only way you can be included on the club's roster is to come and pay the $5 cover charge on a night you're not featured. It's a way to show support for the other artists.
The Speakeasy is like an artist cocktail, with everyone getting paired up with their polar opposite. Bandele thinks about that when he's making up a roster of artists. "I'm just sitting there looking at who I've got black, who I've got white, male, female, whatever," he says.
That could mean Keisha, a black jazz singer, performing with Jobu Babin, a white musician who plays the bass and guitar and uses computer effects. Or maybe Brothas' Keeper, a black poetry group, gets paired with Misti Warren and Davy-Ray, a white duo who play folk and other acoustic music. The mix depends on Bandele's feel of the audience.
"I orchestrate it on the energy of the audience. When the audience is getting a little laid-back, I want to shock them," he says.
And just as the artists change from week to week, so does the room. Bandele rearranges the couches, chairs, and tables. Sometimes there is one rug for performers. Other times there are two. Each set-up adds a different feel to that night's performance.
While the Speakeasy might appear to have some attributes of an open mic, Bandele is quick to dismiss that notion. During an open mic, a lot of upcomingperformers are thinking about what they're going to do instead of paying attention to what's happening on stage.
Poets, musicians, and comedians are in the audience at the Speakeasy, but there is no anxiety because they aren't performing. "They're just there to watch," Bandele says. But nervousness does strike some artists about to perform.
"I would attribute that to the makeup of the audience. We have such a diverse audience in age and race and gender. In Memphis, it's hard to find places like that," Bandele says.