Between the closing of Memphis’ former Black theatre and Hattiloo’s opening there was a need for cultural diversity. While the city enjoyed a vibrant arts community, there were few opportunities for people to experience plays written by notable Black playwrights like Lorraine Hansberry and Lynn Nottage. Subsequently, there were few roles for Black actors and directors, and few chances for an audience with a proclivity for Black theatre to develop.
This was the environment that persisted in Memphis’s arts community when Michael de Caetani, Hattiloo’s founding board chair, approached me about opening a Black theatre. Even so, while there was no creative infrastructure, there was a shared, albeit inequitable, aspiration for inclusion. Local foundations along with hundreds of individuals seeded Hattiloo Theatre with funding, guidance, and resources ranging from lighting instruments to seats.
For years, I believed that opening Hattiloo was merely a response to my purpose, as I believe that 25 years of self-producing and writing plays constitutes ‘purpose.’ Yet, I now know that my original impetus stemmed from a personal lack of connectivity to the art form that I treasured, to my community, and to the city that venerated Black creativity even while it starved it. I founded Hattiloo as a response to my own isolation. When we opened on September 22, 2006 it was with Samm-Art Williams’ play Home - a relevant production as I established a home for dozens of orphaned Black artists as well as for myself.
For the first few seasons I was content producing and directing plays, and hosting events for Black spokenword poets, musicians, comedians, and filmmakers. Hattiloo was indeed a result of the cultural heyday that Hip-Hop sparked and fueled through the mid 1980s into the 2000s.
In 2010, which coincided with Hattiloo’s fifth season, my attention shifted from producing theatre for theatre’s sake and focused on theatre as a method of social revolution. Suddenly, Hattiloo was the vanguard of a movement that challenged catchwords like ‘diversity’ and catchphrases like ‘social change,’ both of which I found relegated Black theatre and the Black experience to merely a subject that needed to be acknowledged and included within the dominant culture.
Working as Hattiloo’s sole employee for its first four years afforded me a proximity from which I witnessed audience members’ reactions to plays like August Wilson’s Fences and Lydia Diamond’s adaptation of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Unexpectedly, these reactions were not of surprise; rather they were of identification. In other words, audiences weren’t watching characters acting out their lives on stage; they were recognizing them as people they knew or had known or had heard about. I realized that our plays served in some ways as a family reunion, homecomings with long lost relatives returning to a collective memory that historical hardships and present day ambitions had suppressed. We reunited people with a childhood pastor through God’s Trombones, or with a distant cousin through The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin. These plays, these reunions were not merely instruments for Memphis’s drive for diversity; they were broken Black families becoming whole – through a play.
With this fresh viewpoint I immediately sought to grow Hattiloo beyond the stage and into what I recognized to be culturally barren communities that were already busy with outreach programs. Essentially, the motivation for many arts outreach programs was an immediate need, not only for the residents, but also for the organization itself to show its commitment to service. However, I saw the issues needing to be addressed in the communities not as immediate, but as generational. I recognized that the consequences impacting culturally barren communities developed gradually, over decades; and that their repair would take just as long, if not longer.
In tandem, with our staged productions in front, Hattiloo began using theatre to plant systemic seeds in these communities: theatre residencies that offer both children and adults cultural alternatives; playwriting workshops by which residents can recall when their neighborhood was dense with mom-and-pop businesses; culminating events that gather people together to celebrate their children’s creativity; and acting classes that equip young men with creative ways to resolve conflicts - during my youth, we achieved this through break-dancing and rapping, such peaceful resolutions can happen again.
Later on, with culture being defined as the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively, I realized that Hattiloo had to compound its creative and community efforts with scholarly discussion that complimented the connectivity that we were spurring through our events. This sparked the necessity for our panel discussions that today bring together many of the descendants of those characters we spotlight on stage. Suddenly and almost instinctively, the needle of my artistic compass was targeted true North by my realization that people must talk and be heard; that people must express themselves in front of empathy; and that they must collectively commemorate shared hurt and observe mutual triumph, even when it’s encapsulated in survival.
As Hattiloo’s CEO, my chief responsibility is to ensure the theatre’s progress and sustainability: continual expansion of our donor base; care of a trained and cohesive staff; more butts in seats; and an esteemed organizational profile. These are my duties. But I found my passion manifested in the sobs that met every curtain of my own play Judas Hands, when audiences recognized their fathers, uncles, or husbands in the heartbreak that Black men with unrealized talent endure. Today, I realize my passion when our devoted white audience members subconsciously develop into cultural anthropologists. And I recognize it when I see Black actors and directors who rooted themselves at Hattiloo now growing on other stages, in other theatres, in other cities. I look behind me, ten-years back, and along that road I witness reunions made, histories vindicated, and people healed. Then I look forward and take my next step.