I always get a sense of anticipation and excitement when I’m at the theatre and the lights dim and the music fills the room, evoking a sense of what’s to come. As the curtain slowly rises I settle back into my chair to enjoy the performance. The best kind of plays or musicals are the ones that aren’t quite what you expect them to be or ones that successfully knock you off your center a little bit with material that is thought-provoking and personal. Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is just such a play and her work has influenced playwrights and artists in the decades since the play’s release in 1959.
One such person, Ekundayo Bandele, sought to use the inspiration of African American artists such as Lorraine Hansberry to create a unique company meant to “develop a Black theatre that is accessible, reflective, and relevant to a multicultural community.” Hattiloo is a Black repertory company in Memphis, Tennessee that was created in 2006 to “educate the public on the subject of the Black presence that has emanated throughout American theatre.” To do this, Hattiloo incorporates music, theatre, dance, and education as a way to emphasize Black artistic expression. In conjunction with the production company, Hattiloo also operates The Black Theatre Museum.
The Black Theatre Museum has four distinct sections in its exhibition space. The topics included are Reconstruction, Early 20th Century, Civil Rights, and Afrocentrism. To learn more about the different exhibit topics, check out this video. Featured in the Civil Rights section is Lorraine Hansberry and her influence on educating people, both black and white, about Black identity through her plays. The exhibits also feature such notable Black influences as the Williams and Walker Performance Team, James Bland, The Whitman Sisters, Amiri Baraka, and Woody King Jr.
While there are an array of different historical Black artists in which to draw inspiration and material, one of the focuses of Hattiloo is in providing a venue for today’s Black artists that are generally “under celebrated” in the artistic community. Located in downtown Memphis, Hattiloo has three theatres that, this season, are offering 15 different performances including plays written, directed, and produced by Black artists. The intent of Hattiloo is really to spotlight Black artistic creativity while being accessible to an audience that is generally underserved in the arts world by providing high quality performances and artistic and educational programming.
Included in the Hattiloo experience is a children’s theatre, in which two of the shows being performed this year are taking place. The children’s theatre doubles as a program meant to foster a child’s creativity and teach them acting skills as well as explore the richness of a diverse society and “observe the dynamics of human relationships.”
While Hattiloo seeks to draw on the creativity of Black performers and playwrights from the past, it is clear that they utilize the influence of artists like Lorraine Hansberry in order to cultivate a sense of Black identity in the present day. Similar to Lorraine Hansberry, Hattiloo seeks to cross racial boundaries by presenting an experience meant for a multicultural audience in order to educate and inspire their participants and viewers through Black artistic expression.