Upon stepping into Washington Hall’s grand ballroom last Friday, audience members were greeted with handshakes and warm welcomes from actors in 1920s attire.
From this moment on, we were made part of the “immersive theater” production of “Jazz Intoxication,” the first production held in the newly-renovated historic building in the Central District. The show was based on real historic events taking place in the century-old building during Prohibition and Seattle’s jazz boom.
According to Director Tyrone Brown, the intention behind “Jazz Intoxication” was to reintroduce community members to Washington Hall, carrying its rich cultural history into a new era. The “immersive theater” style of production was used to physically guide audience members through the space, led by actors who served as tour guides, with several scenes staged throughout the building.
Throughout many of the scenes, audience members were engaged as participants in the building’s history – as guests at a Prohibition-era wedding, members at a 1940s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) meeting, and dancers (if they so chose to dance) at a 1918 jazz concert. While engaging people in this history,“Jazz Intoxication” invited the community to be part of Washington Hall’s future.
“This is our space. This is a community space,” said Brown during a post-show question-and-answer session. “You as a community should be connected to it, embrace it, and help it to bring all of our stories alive.”
“Jazz Intoxication” honored the 98th anniversary of the earliest documented concert of local jazz musicians in Washington state, held on June 10, 1918 at Washington Hall. The Stranger Genius-awarded jazz quartet Industrial Revelation, joined by vocalist Josephine Howell, recreated the Miss Lillian Smith’s Jazz Band’s first performance at the venue. It was an important moment in Seattle’s history as jazz fever swept the region and made a lasting impact on the city’s vibrant culture.
The title of the production was derived from the “Jazz Intoxication” bill of 1933, a failed legislation meant to criminalize jazz and jazz patrons as deviant and clinically insane. Playwright Rachel Atkins used this and other historical moments as the basis of the script, using research by historian and dramaturge Zola Mumford. Scenes of a wedding raided by the “dry police,” a fundraiser for the Seattle chapter of the NAACP, and the experiences of black musicians in a culturally segregated Seattle were all based on that research.
The play reflected many of the roles Washington Hall has played in the local community. Since opening in 1908, Washington Hall was used by many communities as a meeting space, music and dance hall, rental facility and a safe space for people of all backgrounds to gather. Its stage has been graced by Jimi Hendrix, Mark Morris, W.E.B. Du Bois and many others throughout the years.
Because of the building’s poor condition, Washington Hall was at risk of being torn down before it was purchased by Historic Seattle in 2009 with funding from 4Culture. Renovation of the building was a seven-year process that included earthquake retrofitting, replacement of the roof and south wall, installation of an elevator for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), restoration of windows and floors, and the construction of tenant office spaces.
“Thank Black Jesus that they didn’t tear down this building,” Brown laughed during his post-show talk after a public dress rehearsal taking place Thursday. “After 98 years, people have done the work to keep this building here so that another director can come in and tell the history of the neighborhood. Basically, what a lot of people have done in the last 98 years has allowed us to have this going for another 98 years.”
The new space will be managed jointly by 206 Zulu and Hidmo, two of the building’s nonprofit anchor tenants. 206 Zulu has been operating its community arts programming out of Washington Hall since 2009, and Hidmo, formerly a restaurant and community space on Twentieth Street and Yesler Avenue, plans to relaunch at Washington Hall with a café.
While the building will earn much of its revenue as a rental space for offices and events, the new managers intend for Washington Hall to be foremost a space for community.
“The idea is that this is a space that the community can still access,” said Heidi Jackson.
As a board member of 206 Zulu, volunteer at Hidmo and touring arts roster coordinator at 4Culture, Jackson’s connection to Washington Hall runs deep. She said that Hidmo plans to reach out to organizations and communities that have used the space in the past and invite them back into the fold.
“This building is not going to change while the neighborhood changes,” she said, referencing the ongoing gentrification in the Central District, the historically Black neighborhood Washington Hall inhabits.
Hall hopes to see the building as a reliable resource for the local community, and noted that consistent programming should be expected within the next few months.
This Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., 206 Zulu will premiere a new show at Washington Hall called “Diaries of a MAD,” an album release party and “theatrical hip-hop experience” based on the life of King Khazm, 206 Zulu executive director and Seattle emcee/producer. General admission is $25 with $5 tickets available to students 18 and under. Buy tickets and learn more at Brown Paper Tickets.