While some say you can’t put the cart before the horse, some have no choice but to do so.
Ekundayo Bandele, founder of Memphis’ first and only Black Repertory Theatre, built an empire before ever obtaining an undergraduate degree.
And now he’s actually going back to school – to Morehouse College in Atlanta – to complete his undergraduate studies.
“I started at TSU (Tennessee State University) in 1989 and was there a year and a semester before my wife got pregnant,” said Bandele.
“I dropped out so I could take care of my forthcoming family and she finished school and became a teacher while I started a car wash business.”
Bandele was a hustler. For years, his car wash business allowed him to take care of his family and pursue artistic endeavors by night.
A dream come true, he opened Hattiloo Theatre in 2006, but still washed cars until 2009.
Since then, he’s stored those sponges and led Hattiloo to great victories, including a successful $4 million capital campaign to secure the theatre’s current location on Cooper in Overton Square.
Coincidentally, Hattiloo and local HBCU LeMoyne-Owen College (LOC) were the initial impetuses for Bandele’s return to college. That, and a promise to his mother.
“My mother is so proud. And so supportive, as is my entire family,” said Bandele.
Bandele is working with LOC to establish a Black Theatre Studies program with a training pipeline through Hattiloo.
The program will be the first of its kind in the United States and will offer a bachelor’s degree. However, before Bandele can establish the program, he must complete certain prerequisites, the first of which is an undergraduate degree.
“I have a friend, Dr. Melvin Foster, associate provost at Morehouse, who helped devise a plan for me to attend as a nontraditional student,” said Bandele, who started taking some of his general studies classes locally at Southwest online during COVID before relocating to Atlanta.
“I always wanted to attend Morehouse. I had an uncle who graduated in the 80s,” said Bandele.
The uncle, among others, had an impact on his life and inspired Bandele to follow in his footsteps.
Now 51, Bandele enrolled as a junior theatre major, in one of the most prestigious and historic universities in the country. As a “Man of Morehouse,” he aspires to become a “Morehouse Man,” when Mother Morehouse puts a crown on his head in 2024.
“I decided Morehouse is not a place that you play with. It’s not a part-time school. The education is wrapped in acculturation. I knew I wanted to live on campus,” said Bandele.
Bandele was set up in Mays Hall, right in the middle of campus.
“It did take a while for the brothers to recognize me as a brother and not someone’s dad. For example, I met a guy for the first time in a production class and he said, ‘Oh you’re the brother everybody’s been talking about; the older brother who’s really got it going on.’ We connected and established a level of respect and brotherhood.”
Bandele just completed his first semester, with straight A’s.
“I gave it my all. I never flaunted my background, but instead cooperated and participated as an engaged student. My therapist helped me develop ‘shoshin’ or a beginner’s mind, one that’s empty and ready to learn,” said Bandele.
Bandele’s therapist has helped him through the years, starting in 2016, helping him overcome anger issues, and then learning how to deal with being a man of national stature and prominence.
“Being a Black man in Memphis, there are certain stressors and to be successful, you can never come across as an angry Black man,” said Bandele.
He continued, “She’s also helping me live in the moment. My dad died at 54 and even though I don’t live like my father, that’s still in front of me. I have learned you don’t focus on death if you focus on living.”
Bandele’s therapist also helps him determine who he’s going to be when he finishes, how he’s going to act and resume his life at the helm of Hattiloo, which he’s still running, by the way.
“We are flourishing because of his leadership. Things are going great. The company is prospering as a vital part of the community,” said Rosanna “Ros” Smith, administrative assistant at Hattiloo.
“Mr. Bandele is ever present, even in his absence. We are glad he has the opportunity to complete his education and provide us with the leadership that he has in the past.”
Bandele said Smith has even pushed out her retirement until he returns full-time.
“My family, staff, donors and board are so supportive. I’m so blessed. I’m right where God wants me to be,” said Bandele.
And though he started down this path to fulfill a requirement for the next phase of Hattiloo, he realized this timely journey was tailor-made for him to achieve a level of self-development he never experienced before.
“The New Student Orientation was life changing. This entire experience is helping me be a better Black man. Morehouse is just a very special place. The beauty of it is the humility it’s brought out of me.
“I’ve been all these places, been on all these boards, yet here I am…learning and growing,” said Bandele.
(Learn about Ekundayo Bandele’s journey at https://ekundayobandele.com/.)