Chelsea Avenue runs through the heart of North Memphis, which spans just shy of 15 square-miles. There are no movie theaters or live theater houses on Chelsea. In fact, there are none in the whole of North Memphis.
Residents have to travel to Midtown or Downtown to experience a full-scale theater production.
But they do have the Hattiloo Technical Theatre Center. There, students from North Memphis get a sneak peek behind the curtain and learn the ins and outs of theater production.
Located at 2499 Chelsea Avenue in North Memphis' Hollywood-Hyde Park area, it serves as a performance space and training ground where neighborhood youth can attend free workshops in the technical theater arts including costume, prop, and set design.
“North Memphis is [a] cultural desert,” said Lawrence Blackwell, Director of Outreach and Education for Hattiloo Theater.
“North Memphis has the youth. They have the schools. They have the community center. But you don’t see a lot of engagement [there] from the arts community.”
Hattiloo leased the 8,000-square-foot building from the City of Memphis Division of Parks and Neighborhoods in 2016. It was formerly the Hollywood Headstart early education center.
Hattlloo’s founder, Ekundayo Bandele, initially wanted to provide outreach and programming for the entire city. But when he served as the commencement speaker at nearby Douglass High School and saw the scale of artistic disinvestment in the community, he decided to invest specifically in North Memphis.
All training at the center is free of charge as part of Hattiloo's TechiLoo youth program.
Blackwell said many students who have gone through their program since its inception go on to either work at Hattiloo Theatre or train peers in costume and set design at North Memphis schools. Those schools may or may not have a theater programs and full productions, but they all have some types of performances and programs for family and friends that can use the Hattiloo youths' skills.
“Our students are able to take what they’ve learned and bring it into their schools,” said Blackwell. “They actually lead the work.”
The workshop series is sponsored by the Memphis Give365 campaign, a grassroots philanthropy initiative
of the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis. Local Memphians make a donation of $365 a year to support various local organizations.
Hattiloo Theatre was founded in 2006 and is the only freestanding Black repertory theatre in a five-state area including and surrounding Tennessee. In a city where nearly 65% of residents
are black, the theater fills a much-needed gap in the Memphis arts scene.
“We have to validate our experiences and our own importance in our communities,” Blackwell said. “Art is the most effective and the most collaborative way to do that.”
Hattiloo provides a variety of additional youth programming, including Hattiloo-in-the-Library, Write On! Speak Out!, Video at Hattiloo, and Hattiloo Showstoppers.
The next TechiLoo training workshop
at the North Memphis center was scheduled for March 28th, but Blackwell said the current coronavirus pandemic has put in-person gatherings on hold across all Hattiloo shows and programs.
Despite current conditions, he's confident that the technical training workshops, as well as Hattiloo Theatre's productions, will continue when it's safe to resume normal activity. He's equally confident that black arts will persevere in North Memphis and across the city.
“Black culture will survive regardless of what we do in life,” Blackwell said.