Groundbreakings are usually events that are good places to talk about plans in greater detail or to look back at what led to the beginning of construction on something new.
The groundbreaking this past weekend in Overton Square for the new Hattiloo Theater was a bit more than that.
You can read more about the details and the plans here.
Ekundayo Bandele, the founder of the six-year old black repertory theater company named for his two daughters, added a personal statement about the role of the arts in his life that included the legacy of Richard Wright, the internationally known writer whose childhood in Memphis and Mississippi shaped his works.
Here are Bandele’s remarks this past Saturday on the parking lot where in the next year a new theater — the fourth theater in Overton Square — will be built.
“When I grew up, I grew up always wanting to be the next Richard Wright. When I grew up I knew and I had read almost all of Tennessee Williams. I had read Shakespeare. I had read Walt Whitman. But it wasn’t until my later years that I discovered that I wanted to be Richard Wright because I discovered Richard Wright. And I discovered Toni Morrison and I discovered Zora Neale Hurston. And then I discovered August Wilson and so on and so forth.
I start there because oft times when we talk about America there is a chapter missing. And the chapter that is often missing is that African-American chapter. We often pick up with the African American experience with the civil rights movement in the 1950s and then moving forward. And then we come into the voter rights bill being signed and us getting integration and all of that. And we say that’s where we began.
A lot of African Americans don’t want to look back beyond 1863 and the Emancipation Proclamation or 1861 when our ancestors were in the cotton and the tobacco and the rice. We don’t want to look back there and say that is part of the American chapter. But it is. Because what we lack to understand and what we lack to embrace is that those people survived the great 200-year turmoil. And because they survived, we are here today.
So we oft times don’t want to look that far back. So we decide that we’re going to stay right there in the comfort zone. Why do I start there in talking about us here?
I always say that we can go right down the street, right down Poplar, all the way down Poplar to Theater Memphis and we can learn about Brighton Beach and we can learn about all of the Noel Cowards and the great playwrights that talk about that experience.
And we can go across the street and learn about the great European American experience and Italian American experience and the Scottish American experience and the Jewish American Experience.
But before Hattiloo, the black experience was just a footnote. But we are a chapter. We are part of this wonderful and brilliant country — so, America hasn’t been fully told. We have to tell the entire story to see how brilliant. Our founding fathers founded this country so that all people should be free, so that all people could have liberty. Now, it took us around 250 years to get there, but their vision is being realized. And that is what we must treasure. That is the American dream. Looking out here, this is the American dream.
In 2006 we founded the theater, a little bitty old store front down on Marshall Avenue – a lot of work, a lot of sweat. We didn’t have HVAC for a while. We had one bathroom for a while. Intermission was 30 minutes sometime if you had everybody waiting in a line. We got used to it and it became comfortable. In our city we get used to things. In our country, we get used to things. Here is always comfortable because we know what to expect. We know what pitfalls are in front of us. Here is always home because we’ve made our bed. But over there is always terrifying because we don’t know what’s over there. But the only way we get there is by leaving here.
This isn’t land, guys. You all think we are breaking ground on a building. We’re not breaking ground on a building. We are breaking ground on a pulpit because that is what the arts is. Arts speak from the soul. Arts tells you what’s going on in the world. This isn’t a stage. This is a pulpit. That is what we are constructing. That is what we are breaking ground on. We are going to speak from the soul and tell the American experience. We are opening the windows of Hurt Village. We are opening the windows of the Lorraine Hotel and we are telling that story. That’s what we are breaking ground on here today.
This is bigger than me. The reason that I named this Hattiloo, after my two daughters, is because we are looking to the future. I could have named it after my mother. I could have named it after my father. But I named it after my daughters because they are the future. This is what we are investing in today.”