Tue | Jun 19, 2018

Seattle encore

Published:Sunday | May 14, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Seattle Art Museum
Central Library with Henry Moore sculpture in foreground

When I first wrote to you about Seattle in 2013, I described the joy of walking the streets of this city, a port on the Pacific Ocean a hundred miles south of the Canadian border.

Visiting Pikes Peak Market, riding the Great Wheel overlooking Elliott Bay and Seattle Harbour, taking a ferry to Vashon Island, marvelling at the iconic Space Needle and spectacular architecture of the Central Library, enjoying the Seattle Aquarium, the Seattle Art Museum and the International District celebrating Asian cultures with their varied restaurants was a treat.

Living in a tropical climate in Jamaica, we forget about the seasons farther north. So it wasn't until after I'd bought my ticket and was packing that I checked the weather, and to my horror discovered that this February it was going to be 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) and rainy. A little colder and one has the splendour of snowflakes. A little warmer and one can sport a jacket and scarf, but at that temperature with rain meant clasping an umbrella and wearing a bulky coat.

The morning deluge soon brought traffic to a halt and closed schools.


Major sights


I'd already seen the major sights, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center describing how their wealth helps people around the world. A more funky must-see by the other co-founder of Microsoft lies across the street. Paul G. Allen recognised Seattle's history of alternative music by hiring architect Frank O. Gehry, who designed a smashed guitar-shaped building to celebrate Seattle-born rock legend Jimmy Hendrix. Originally designated as the Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, it is better known as the EMP. Allen wanted his museum to create an atmosphere "intended to inspire risk taking and spark creativity and imagination".

That is certainly what I discovered in the Seattle Immersive Theatre in the Queen Anne neighbourhood.

Formed three years ago as a nomadic theatre company, they have, unfortunately, shut down as they lost their lease at the end of March of Seattle because their rent has been doubled. I was privileged to be part of their immersive cabaret experience in the production of Storyville Rising created by Off-Broadway director David Crellin.

With an audience limited to 40 to maintain a cabaret feel, we entered under a rolled-up metal shutter into what felt like an old warehouse or gutted business. The actual Storyville was an infamous "red light" district of New Orleans from 1897 to 1917. A century later, the Seattle Immersive Theatre explored sex, race, power, and privilege in the Reconstruction era.

Sponsored by Alderman Sidney Story, the New Orleans City Council actually mandated a 16-bloc area to regulate prostitution and drugs, which were illegal elsewhere in the city. To the alderman's chagrin, the area soon became known as Storyville.

We entered that world by first being enclosed in a shabby room whose walls were covered with real newspaper clippings of the era pertaining to prostitutes, drugs, murder, sex, and warnings to soldiers about venereal diseases. Ushered into the next room, we became clients in a plush bordello, seated at small tables or red velvet couches scattered throughout the room, a pianist on a side stage.


Brilliant evening


With a not too risque burlesque routine performed amid us and narratives by a well-spoken madam and a gentleman in tails, the evening proceeded brilliantly. Ushered into a third room, this time a chapel, we became members of a congregation listening to an outraged pastor railing against the sins of just such a place as we had been part of until we exited into a darkened yard.

A black man wanted for murder proclaimed his outrage at a system of brutality that oppressed his people, while a writhing brief Luminous Pariah performance conveyed that pain as three Ku Klux Klan characters appeared in our midst. Led through the darkness back into the faded lustre of our bordello, the evening ended with our multiracial caste, each portraying more than one role, having carried us through two decades of history, indelibly now a part of our memory. Although Storyville Rising ended on February 25, it was far better than many a performance I've seen on Broadway, so if ever you see it advertised anywhere in the world, go for the experience.

Another vivid experience is that of the Chihuly Garden and Glass Exhibit in the Seattle Center, adjacent to the Space Needle. I had first encountered Dale Chihuly's spectacular blown-glass art works at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. His work may be found in over 200 museum collections worldwide, and in 2012, this permanent exhibition opened to honour the Tacoma, Washington, native. A 40-foot glass and steel sculpture rises in The Garden, with three other huge outdoor sculptures, while inside, are eight galleries on different themes. My favourite, the Mille Fiori, includes hundreds of objects within an installation of glorious colour, light reflecting through and off of the multicoloured glass objects in a darkened room. Don't miss the demonstration on glass blowing to fully appreciate the mastery involved in Chihuly's awesome work.

Finally, the food I have never eaten so well, and so consistently. As our Uber drivers from Ethiopia, Mali, and Pakistan took us around the city, I noticed an abundance of Vietnamese and Mexican restaurants but with my preference for French.

We enjoyed a traditional meal at Luc's and another night one at the amazing Toulouse Petit, chosen the fifth favourite restaurant in the US and 10th favourite in the world by Travellers' Choice in 2012.

Seating 172, lit by 250 votive candles, and decorated with thousands of Italian mosaic tiles, the range of food was delicious. But the meal I yearn for came at lunch in The Sorrento Hotel's Dunbar Room. Their Muffaletto Panini, a crisply toasted bread melting into a salami, ham, prosciutto, olive tapenade, fontina and caper aioli remains a sublime creation, perfect after viewing the nearby Frye Art Museum.