Hattiloo Theatre is taking on heavy subjects in its plays this season, ones that spark discussions, says Ekundayo Bandele, the theater's founder and executive director.
The Broadway musical "The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin," which runs through Aug. 12 at Hattiloo, is no exception. A panel discussion on major themes in the show — identity, self-discovery, navigating racism, sexism, and family issues — was held at the theater last weekend.
"A lot of our plays this season look at issues that affect the black community," Bandele said. "Every show this season has a panel discussion and the theme is built around the theme of the play. The plays we produce at Hattiloo are plays that are not just entertaining; they all have social commentary built into them."
"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" runs Aug. 30 through Sept. 16 in conjunction with a panel discussion called "Theatre Classics & the Black Community" to be held August 25. "Hurt Village," written by award-winning playwright and Memphis native Katori Hall, is set for Oct. 4 -21 with a panel discussion on "The Projects and Gentrification" on Sept. 29.
Panelists Rychetta Watkins, assistant professor of English at Rhodes College, set the stage for the discussion of "Issues Affecting Black Women" by asking the audience to imagine the challenges "Bubbly Black Girls" playwright Kristen Childs must have faced breaking into musical theater where very few black women had been before.
"Musical theater highlights the ongoing and complicated struggle we face in a racist and sexist society," Watkins said. "Can we have a black female identity that doesn't bear the crushing weight of politics? This play illustrates the struggle through the ingenious use of satire."
The show is about a girl whose bubbly personality masks the devastating effect of self-denial, and her journey of self-discovery from the 1960s through the 1990s. The heavy subject matter is offset by lively, funky music and dance. The opening act was performed for the audience attending the panel discuss Saturday.
Deborah Hester, a panelist and president/CEO of Girls Inc. of Memphis, opened the discussion with sobering statistics about the challenges local girls face. Alcohol and drug use, violence and gangs, sex and sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy and obesity are among them.
"The numbers are overwhelming," Hester said. "There is more to these issues than poverty and lack of education. It's a matter of not associating with anyone different from you." When girls grow up in an environment that only reflects the negatives of human existence, "you can't be what you don't see," Hester said. "They need role models, mentors to show them a different way."
Hester asked for and got numerous women from the audience to sign up to be Girls Inc. mentors.
Panelist Jacquelyn Williams, executive director of the YWCA, shared how she broke the corporate glass ceiling by following her parents' advice to be true to self, be disciplined and always look your best.
"I was taught that if you don't present well, you won't be received well," she said. Initially, she thought that meant straightening her hair or buying the best hair weave she could get to be accepted in the dominant culture. She talked about her hair weave versus natural hair struggle. As she evolved and advanced in her career, she said, "at some point I had to be true to myself."
Panelist Wendi C. Thomas, a columnist for The Commercial Appeal, talked about growing up middle class with a father who was a college professor and mother, a pharmacist. "I don't have a ghetto testimony," she said. "I didn't know anything about food stamps and Section 8." She recalled that even though she had a typical American upbringing, a white neighbor refused to allow his daughter to play with her because she was black.
In 2003 Thomas became the first black female columnist at The Commercial Appeal. She said she faces the sting of racism, mixed with sexism, by the online comments left on her columns.
To succeed professionally, Thomas said, she sought the help of others, including some white male mentors and allies.
"I had to learn to do what I needed to do to get what I needed to get," she said.
Panelist Ruby Bright, executive director of the Women's Foundation, said she used a similar tactic to ascend to leadership roles in the nonprofit arena. She said as many young black women as possible should see "Bubbly Black Girls" to better understand the identity crisis that many face as a result of internal and external racism. She shared the childhood experience of having a racial slur hurled at her by a black classmate whose skin was lighter than hers.
In addition to racism and sexism, black women also struggle with the "Super Woman syndrome," said audience member Vareifa Barrett. She said her battle with obesity is due in large part to her tendency to put the needs of others above her own. When she finally decided to put her health first others criticized her as being selfish.
"It's really hard, and black women often don't have anyone to turn to who truly understands and cares about what they are going through," she said.
The discussion was closed with pleas from Bandele and panelists for everyone to do more for the common good of the community, contribute to charitable organizations and encourage everyone to see "Bubbly Black Girl."
"Having two girls of my own, I thought it important to deal with this subject," Bandele said. "It's all about black girls loving themselves and finding pride in being black."
‘The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin’
Performances run through Aug. 12 at Hattiloo Theatre, 652 Marshall Ave. Tickets are $12 to $25. For more information, call 901-525-0009 or go to hattiloo.org.