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Memphis Theatre: Black, White... and Purple

Christopher Blank

Last Sunday, the annual Ostrander Award ceremony packed the Orpheum theater with hundreds of local actors, directors and stage technicians all hoping to win the Memphis equivalent of Broadway's Tony. As always, the coveted best musical prize was announced last.

The winner wasn't much of a surprise. The musical “The Color Purple,” produced by Playhouse on the Square, was practically everyone’s first choice to win. The show combines the emotional wallop of Alice Walker's novel with uplifting gospel music. And in case there was any doubt about its success as a local production, it also cleaned up in the categories of best director, best actress, best supporting actress, best choreographer, and on and on.

While “The Color Purple” made a winning impression on the Ostrander judges – all of whom are white people -- it wasn't the only black theatrical production on their radar. Others included Hattiloo Theatre's "Hurt Village," "Sarafina!" and "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," along with Circuit Playhouse's "The Mountaintop." About 30 percent of the nominees in individual categories were performers in shows with black themes.

As director Tony Horne observed before the ceremony: “I think this is the largest number of African-American nominees that I can ever remember since I’ve been coming to the Ostranders. So it’s exciting.”

In the final tally of awards, over half of the individual winners were black. For the first time ever, the distribution of prizes mirrored the racial demographics of Memphis itself.

It’s true that the past performing arts season was unusually ripe with serious African-American plays and musicals. But many in the black arts community sense that this might not be a one-time occurrence. Horne says that some old perceptions are changing.

“When I was a kid, we didn’t think we were welcomed at certain theaters," Horne said. "Even though I don’t think that is true, it can be self-perpetuating. There’s a moment when everything shifts and people realize it’s a fair and open market and we are welcomed everywhere. Because most of use grew up knowing we weren’t supposed to go certain places. Even recently, I think young people feel that way.”

Claire Kolheim, the star of “The Color Purple,” is one of those young people whose views are becoming more optimistic.

“I do feel like there’s a huge shift in the opportunities presented to African-Americans here in Memphis," she said. "Not just with theater but with opera and dance and visual arts. And I’m excited to see that now everyone in Memphis gets an opportunity to see the vastness of where African-Americans can be.”

What has precipitated this feeling of possibility for black performers? Most agree that things starting looking up in 2006 when a charismatic director and playwright, EkundayoBandele, founded a new theater company devoted to black repertory. Within a year, he had transformed a storefront near downtown into a 75-seat performance space.

“In the last five years, there has been a great upsurgence of black directors, choreographers, designers," Bandele said. "And you now have a lot more actors who have been formally trained on our stage here at Hattiloo."

The small size of the theater hasn’t stifled big musicals such as “Dreamgirls ” or serious dramas by August Wilson. Bandele says that black performers are energized just by the prospect of auditioning for strong roles, whereas getting relegated to the chorus in more traditional venues often leaves performers feeling marginalized. He says there’s a growing enthusiasm not just for being in plays, but for attending them as well. With more shows to choose from, black audiences are becoming more supportive all around.

Credit Christopher Blank
Produced by Hattiloo Theatre, Katori Hall's play "Hurt Village" earned several Ostrander nominations and won the award for best large ensemble.

  “For a while, blacks in Memphis would see a theater produce one black show every 2 years and that show was the token show," Bandele said. "It became 'I can go to the zoo on Tuesday.'" When a community lacks contribution, it resents being given charity. However, when the community says you’re no longer giving me charity because I have a choice, now I can choose to come to your theater because I have this one over here which represents me. You are finding beauty in me over here at this theater, therefore I’m going to come see your presentation of my beauty.”

Bandele sees nothing exclusionary about a black repertory company. Rather, he wants his productions to show how easy it is to include black artists in a traditionally white medium. He frequently stages plays that are almost always seen with white casts.

"The experience of black folk are human experiences," he said. " You only get to see that when you take something that has been categorized as white and  you put black people in it without changing a word, without giving it a black twist. Then you see that 'Grease' is a Romeo and Juliet story. You see 'Steel Magnolias' is a story about women. Not black women, not white women. Women."

Bandele's dream of a robust black performing arts community in Memphis has garnered broad support. In the last ten years, the recession gobbled up a number of prestigious arts groups across the country. But HattilooTheatre is growing.

Construction is underway in Overton Square for the company’s new home, a $2.8 million, 175-seat theater right next door to Playhouse, Circuit Playhouse and TheatreWorks.  

Credit Playhouse on the Square
Claire D. Kolheim won an Ostrander Award for her performance as Celie in "The Color Purple" at Playhouse on the Square.

  The space will also be a talent incubator – not only for back artists, but for arts administrators, box office managers, publicists, and development directors. If the ability to raise capital funds is any indication of community support for a nonprofit arts group, Hattiloo won’t lack for an audience. The building is already paid for, and will be completed by June. Bandele says that having a black theater in the heart of Memphis’ newly revitalized entertainment district is one more way of bringing the races together for a cultural experience all can enjoy.

“It’s extremely important and vital that black people take ownership of HattilooTheatre so that they can say this is our contribution to the table of Memphis," Bandele said.

Even a few years ago, it might have been difficult for Playhouse on the Square to produce “The Color Purple” due to the size of the available local talent pool. But the number of Ostrander awards won by show’s cast members suggests that a future problem for theaters won’t be a dearth of talent, just a lack of good roles to offer hungry artists.

As the award-winning cast of “The Color Purple” took the stage last Sunday for a final curtain call, one thing was clear. Nothing about the show being a black musical changed the fact that it was also – at least, at this year’s Ostranders – the best musical.