By Karanja A. Ajanaku, The New Tri-State Defender
The real-life drama that culminated with the removal of Confederate-era statues from what had been two Memphis-owned parks will be the subject of a play being developed by Ekundayo Bandele, founder and CEO of the Hattiloo Theatre.
With Bandele and an associate, Johnny Jones, forming the creative team, the Hattiloo is among the 2019 recipients of MAP Fund grants. Forty-two original, live performance projects will be funded, with a total of $1.3 million in direct support for development and production.
Hattiloo will receive $18,725 to support the Take ‘Em Down 901 play.
“This play will premiere in 2021, with free performances in both Health Sciences and Memphis parks,” said Bandele in announcing the grant award. “The MAP Fund invests in artistic production as the critical foundation of imagining — and ultimately co-creating — a more equitable and vibrant society.”
The MAP grantors note that “at a time of deep division, the grantees seek to interrogate marginalizing structures in the United States while asserting new possibilities for thriving interdependence.”
Some of the projects will employ processions and other performance practices as a strategy for “transforming spaces with racist histories, such as contentious borders, waterways, or landmarks.” Others will generate shared rituals, dances and songs in celebration of life.
Topics covered by the 42 performance projects include an exploration of the mental health of firefighters in Detroit, where the vacancy and arson rates are the highest in the country, and a look at the “larger psychological ramifications of border politics for immigrants.”
MAP Fund Executive Director, Moira Brennan, said, “As a whole, this extraordinarily diverse group of artists sends a resounding message of determination and hope. We are honored to support their efforts and can’t wait to watch their visions unfold.”
Here is the description of the Hattiloo performance project:
“Take ‘Em Down 901” is a one-act play about the grassroots movement that resulted in the December 2017 removal of statues of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and Capt. J. Harvey Mathes from public parks in Memphis, where they had stood for more than 100 years, casting their shadows over residents of the fifth ‘Blackest’ city in the country.
The script will be developed by Ekundayo Bandele to tell the story from the perspectives of the group of roughly 50 concerned citizens, who succeeded in legally toppling the controversial landmarks, in the process, upending the powerful institutions that had long protected them and the enduring legacy of oppression they represented for Memphis’ marginalized majority.
The City of Memphis sold Health Science Park and the easement to Memphis Park to Memphis Greenspace, Inc., to clear the way for the removal of the three controversial statues saluting Confederate-era figures.
The parks were sold to Memphis Greenspace, Inc. for $1,000 each. The sale of the parks followed the city’s unsuccessful attempt to get a waiver from the Tennessee Historical Commission to remove the Forrest statue from Health Sciences Park. Memphis Greenspace, Inc. removed the trio of statues within hours of taking ownership.
The MAP Fund was established in 1988 by The Rockefeller Foundation to support innovation and cross-cultural exploration in new works of live performance. Over the past two decades, MAP guidelines have gradually broadened to welcome artists exploring issues of class, sexual orientation, gender, generation, faith and other aspects of cultural difference.
The presentation of the 2019 MAP grantees is in celebration of the group’s 30th anniversary of grant making.
Karanja A. Ajanaku: Describe the development of the play idea. Did you have the idea and were in search of funding? Did you learn of the funding, with the idea for the play then coming to mind?
Ekundayo Bandele: I have long been fascinated with how the Confederate statues were brought down and with the people involved. As Hattiloo approaches its 15-year anniversary, we want to start telling the stories that are around us. So often, Black Memphis history is forgotten within the span of a few short years. My desire to tell this story came before the grant opportunity. Still, the support that comes with the grant makes my idea of the play more tangible.
KAA: Have you already started the writing? How long will it take?
EB: I am still in the research-and-interview phase. I’ve met with Mayor (Jim) Strickland and his team, (Shelby County Commissioner) Tami Sawyer (#TakeEmDown901 spokesperson), (Shelby County Commission Chairman) Van (D.) Turner (Jr. of Greenspace) and Patrick Ghant. I anticipate meeting with (Rev. L.) LaSimba (M.) Gray (Jr.) and Alan Wade, as well as (Rev. Dr.) Earl (J.) Fisher. I will take the rest of this year devising the play – it’s surroundings, the archetypal characters, the symbols. Next year I plan to start workshopping it through table and staged readings. The play will premier in the spring of 2021.
KAA: How important is the aspect of the free performances, particularly in the parks? Did you have to get prior permission for the performances? If so, what was the feedback and from whom?
EB: I asked Van Turner if Memphis Greenspace would grant us permission to perform the play there. He said ‘yes’. I think it is imperative that the community is invited to see this story unfold, a story that will be fiction based on fact. Everyone that I’ve spoken to about the free performances have been excited to see them happen.
KAA: Should we expect to see any of the “takemdown901” activists playing themselves? How will you go about casting and when?
EB: None of the real-life people involved in the statues’ removal will be in the play. There will be characters who represent the sentiment of, say, Tami Sawyer, or Alan Wade. This play isn’t meant to be a documentary work, but a spotlight on a movement that has happened in other cities – Baltimore, Charlottesville, New Orleans. I want to make sure that, while the story is about Memphis, there are themes that any person in any of those other cities can relate to.
KAA: Can you describe your history/partnership with Mr. Jones.
EB: I became acquainted with Mr. Jones through actor and director Baron Kelly, who is also at the University of Louisville. Once I learned that the University had the only program where a student can earn a certificate in African-American theatre, I knew that the play had to have input from that department. Mr. Jones is an accomplished thespian, and I’m eager to see how his insight helps bring this play to fruition.