Seattle’s Art Scene Pushes Back

As the events on the political stage become ever more worri- and wearisome, the city’s arts and cultural community responds. Check out these exhibits, shows and lectures coming up that look at social, political and historical forces at work today
| Updated: November 27, 2018
Zimbabwean artist Kudzanai Chiurai's 2017 work, "We Live in Silence VII"

In Tony Kushner’s play A Bright Room Called Day—which Seattle’s Williams Project is staging Oct. 25–Nov. 18—a group of artists in 1932 Berlin debate how to deal with the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party. What should art do? What can it do? How do art and politics mix? Will it change anything—actual policies or hearts and minds? In a sense artists all over the country, especially in liberal-leaning Seattle, are re-enacting this play in macrocosm, mulling these questions and what their obligations are to respond to current events: either obliquely or directly, and either specifically to the actions of this administration or more broadly to the country’s social, cultural, racial and sexual divisions—with an eye on where these actions and divisions could lead. Here’s a look at a few upcoming presentations that address such issues.

In Samara Lerman’s solo show Cyla’s Gift—to be staged at Taproot Theatre Sept. 27–Oct. 13—the actress/playwright retells her Ukrainian grandmother’s WWII flight from the advancing armies of Germany, leaving her Jewish village to trek across Asia and Europe. The importance of history, what we remember and what (if anything) we learn from it, was foremost in Lerman’s mind: “Two-thirds of Americans surveyed cannot identify what Auschwitz is,” she points out in the press release. And unless we know our history, its repetitions and parallels will be lost on us, making us just as susceptible.

“This play began as a deeply personal project to process my grandmother's legacy,” Lerman says. “The script has been in development for many years. It has been fascinating and horrifying to see how parts of the script have become increasingly relevant. References to certain historical events now land with excruciating relevancy and immediacy, from illegal border crossings to young unarmed men being shot by the police to the lasting intergenerational trauma of family separation. It is also a project that allows and trusts the audience to make those connections for themselves,” she adds. “I strongly believe that stories become universal when they are grounded in personal truth.”

Cyla’s Gift director Kelly Kitchens is also the co-artistic director at Seattle Public Theater, whose 2018–19 season, #CONFRONTINGAMERICA, will address issues “from the opioid crisis to class struggles, from abortion to interracial adoption.” Its opening show, running Oct. 12–Nov. 4, is Tanya Saracho’s Fade, which concerns a TV writer and her office’s janitor, both of Mexican descent. Saracho is herself a TV writer (Girls and How to Get Away With Murder), and draws on her own experiences in what SPT is describing as an exploration of  “the price of ambition faced by many women of color in professions dominated by white men.” Also examining timely and provocative issues is Mirror Stage’s staged reading series. The company commissioned two short plays on the theme of incarceration (including in its press release links to national and local detention statistics). The results, Alma Davenport’s The Assailant and Stacy D. Flood’s The Swimming Pool, will be unveiled Oct. 6–7 at the Ethnic Cultural Theatre and Oct. 13–14 at Southside Commons.

Travel maven Rick Steves has put his concerns and reminders in an even more direct documentary form, in an hour long special called The Story of Fascism in Europe. Through visits to many memorials and historical locations (a concentration-camp site, the Anne Frank House) and interviews with the descendants of survivors, he explores “how fascism rose and then fell in Europe—taking millions of people with it.” It does take some readjusting to see the Steves you know and love, cherubic and affable as ever, discussing, as he says in the doc’s intro,  “the turbulent aftermath of World War I, when masses of angry people rose up, to the rise of charismatic leaders who manipulated that anger, the totalitarian societies they built and the brutal measures they used to enforce their ideology. We’ll see the horrific consequences: genocide and total war.” Like Lerman, he stresses the vital importance of education and remembering, without naming any specific politician or nation—or needing to. “If you know what mechanisms were working and what mechanisms of economy and politics were at play in the 192os and ’30s,” says one interviewee, “then you can see what is happening today and try to prevent it.” Steves will screen the show Oct. 17 at the Edmonds Center for the Arts; it’s also watchable right now at

Authors, unsurprisingly, have had plenty to say on the rise of American illiberalism, and don’t hesitate to point fingers. Sikh-American Georgetown University law professor Arjun Singh Sethi gathered the experiences of those targeted by race- and sex-based hostility in his new book, American Hate: Survivors Speak Out, in which “survivors tell their stories in their own words and describe how the bigoted rhetoric and policies of the Trump administration have intensified bullying, discrimination and even violence toward them and their communities.” He’ll speak at the Seattle Central Library at 7 p.m. on Sept. 27.

In the just-released Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, journalist Jose Antonio Vargas expanded on the 2011 New York Times article in which he revealed his history as a 12-year-old who came to the U.S. from the Philippines to live with his grandparents, naturalized U.S. citizens—being given what he later discovered were invalid documents. His book reveals “the unsettled, unmoored psychological state that undocumented immigrants like me find ourselves in….about families, keeping them together and having to make new ones when you can’t,” and he’ll discuss it with Ijeoma Oluo (author of So You Want to Talk About Race), at The Collective at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 28.

Poet and visual artist Quenton Baker addresses a very different immigration experience in his installation Ballast, showing at the Frye Museum Oct. 6–Feb. 3. Baker made poetry from redactions of a Senate report about an 1841 shipboard slave revolt, the Creole, and the resulting visual positive/negative space—some words obliterated, some kept visible—evokes the erasure of black history in the context of a white-dominated (more to the point, -supremacist) culture. The piece also, Baker says, reflects on present-day experience by drawing “connections between enslaved people's survival techniques and contemporary coping mechanisms employed by the artist and his loved ones.” And at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, Kudzanai Chiurai’s solo exhibit We Live in Silence ties together themes of colonialism and female emancipation. He himself experienced firsthand the encroachment of political power on artistic freedom, threatened with arrest and forced into exile from his native Zimbabwe thanks to an artwork negatively depicting then-President Robert Mugabe.

Formed, not coincidentally, in January 2017, Seattle band Brivele describes itself as a “anti-fascist klezmer folk-punk trio.” “We draw from a long tradition of Diaspora-proud struggle,” proclaims their website, “because sometimes Yiddish says it best, and because we are the granddaughters, or great-granddaughters, or great-great-granddaughters of Yiddish.” They’ll play the Hillman City Collaboratory Sept. 28. The theme of memory is one music evokes particularly touchingly, and The Esoterics’ Oct. 5–7 concerts (at various venues) explore the theme of consolation, of “an act of remembrance after loss.” Among the works on the program is “Uprooted” by composer Sarah Rimkus, who grew up on Bainbridge Island (and now lives in Scotland); she set texts based on interviews with two local Japanese-American women, Kay Sakai Nakao and Lilly Kitamoto Kodama, who were among the 227 from the island interned during WWII. And if you want to see what happens when the individual clashes with a militaristic totalitarian state—tunefully and with over-the-top spectacle—check out Verdi’s Aida on Oct. 6; it’s the first of this season’s live-in-HD broadcasts from NYC’s Metropolitan Opera. See for participating theaters.

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