If you’ve attended a show at the Moore Theatre, you’ve almost certainly seen it: an unmarked, unassuming entrance nestled into the side of the building. No one enters there anymore, though post-show, patrons will spill out of it onto Virginia Street.
But in the not-so-distant past, Black audience members were required to use it. The segregated entrance led directly up to the worst seats in the house in the Moore’s second balcony.
“[That’s] the reality of how disgusting Jim Crow was, and how it was just standard practice,” said Shakiah Danielson. “Even in the design of the Moore, the ‘colored section’ is completely out of sight and out of mind. So you have a separate entrance, separate box office, separate concessions, separate everything. You’re never seen. You’re never heard. You’re never looked at. You’re never glanced upon. But, [they] do want your money.”
Danielson is the creative director for ELEVATE, an education and community engagement program from Seattle Theatre Group that showcases spoken-word performance from Black and brown artists. The Moore’s segregated entrance was a creative catalyst for the program’s inaugural show, a filmed performance that will feature poetry and history presentations. It streams for free at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 16, and will be available for viewing after the event.
Established artists and youth performers from ages 11-19 collaborated on the show, creating pieces inspired by both personal history and Seattle history. Stephanie Johnson-Toliver, historian and president of the Black Heritage Society of Washington State, gave the team context, speaking about events from 1907, 1921 and 1928, the years STG’s Moore, Neptune and Paramount opened.
“There’s so much Black history in Washington that the Black community has no clue about, because we’ve never been taught this,” Danielson said.
From there, artists mentored youths, connecting with them in virtual meetings and guiding them on their artistic journeys.
“Spoken word is one of the few things in life rules don’t apply to. You can express yourself in the way you want to be expressed,” said Aaron Reader, a poet and educator who’s vice president of Student Services at Highline College. “I think young folks navigate through life where rules are always in place. This was an opportunity for them to break those rules off and really just share their story.”
Many of the young people participating in ELEVATE had never created spoken word, including Maya Michelle Russell, a seventh grader at Lake Washington Girls Middle School. Russell is an experienced performer, with credits at the 5th Avenue Theatre and Book-It Repertory Theatre, but writing and performing her own work was a new experience. It wasn’t the only one.
“Part of what was so special about ELEVATE was getting to do it with people that look like you,” Russell said. “Oftentimes, when I’m on stage, I’m one of the only people out there who looks like I do. It was really empowering, and made me feel seen and heard.”
Russell collaborated with three others on a piece about “Black Girl Magic,” a movement that recognizes and champions the achievements of Black women and girls. She’s continued to write spoken word, and it’s helped her make it through the pandemic, she said.
“It was just the thing I needed to give me a kick in the butt to get up in the morning and get dressed and write about something that’s important,” she said.
The show’s group of mentors collaborated on their own piece for the project, and they homed in on that Moore Theatre entrance as inspiration. After learning about the history, they went to the Moore, entered through that door and then gathered on the stage to develop their piece in the shadow of that second balcony.
“It’s like the walls talk, and you get the feeling of what it [was] like to be in that space,” Reader said.
Everyone was on the same wavelength as they worked together to bring the entrance and balcony to life, Reader said.
“Folks will hear the very real anger and frustration [at] all the things that entrance represents,” he said. “It’s not something that’s in the past. That entrance represents something that is alive and breathing in Seattle.”
For Danielson, the point of ELEVATE is to uplift, but it’s impossible to ignore the devastating reality of America’s racist present and past. The history lessons that underpinned the project emphasized how closely they’re intertwined.
“It was enriching and it was infuriating all at the same time,” she said. “It feels like, ‘Where do we go from here?’ You learn so much, you get enlightened, and at the same time, you’re just like, ‘Ugh, when does this end?’
“Then you top that with the riots, the protests. We keep adding hashtags. It’s a lot to take in. But my hope is that ELEVATE helps to release some of the trauma through art.”