“7th and Jackson” revisits a Seattle crossroads of history, place and culture

“7th and Jackson” actors, from left: Sarah Russell, Anasofia Gallegos, and Corinne Magin. (Photo by Bruce Clayton Tom for Cafe Nordo)

You enter a stylishly old interior typical of Pioneer Square historical architecture. A four-piece live band fires up old jazz standards and you are set to relax with a cocktail and enjoy a respite from your daily life.

This is Café Nordo, a ten-year old arts institution that marries music, cuisine and history. In its latest production, the world premier of “7th and Jackson” by the prolific Sara Porkalob, the cafe revisits an era that risks being lost to time in Seattle’s rush for redevelopment.

For those who have been hanging around Seattle since the 1960s, “7th and Jackson” is nostalgic. But for youngsters and newcomers to Seattle, the “7th and Jackson” experience embodies an important part of Seattle’s multicultural history.

“7th and Jackson” takes its title from the location in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District (CID) that has served as multicultural and multidimensional crossroads of people from many parts of the world.

The play begins in 1941 as 15-year old best friends Ligaya, Ada and Min practice “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” with their intricate three-part harmonies mimicking the Andrews Sisters original rendition.

The three singers live in Yesler Terrace, the racially integrated public housing on Yesler Hill, overlooking what is now known as the Chinatown-International District. Ligaya (Anasofia Gallegos) is Filipina American and her mother runs a produce stand. Min (Corinne Magin) is Korean American and she becomes a young radical as she listens to her mother relating the horrors of wartime occupation of Korea by Imperial Japan troops. Ada (Sarah Russell) is African American and traces her family’s story back to enslaved times in the Deep South.

The teenagers dream of performing and eventually owning a jazz nightclub, with rich renditions of songs by the great Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington.

The trio’s delicious singing harmonies, such as in “Chattanooga Choochoo” are augmented by the fine four-piece band, perched on a tiny mezzanine and directed by Andrew Pang.

As the plot develops, each actor embodies other roles, such as mother and daughter, without change in costume, only by changing voice and facing a different direction.

The play is loaded with historical context, and the audience learns of the Japanese American neighbors who were forced to leave Japantown; Japan’s role in terrorizing East Asia in World II, and the life-threatening racism faced by African-Americans throughout the United States. The backdrop of World War II follows the women and sets a tone in the CID itself, as their friends, played with fervor by Aaron Jin (a former Seattle Globalist apprentice) and Van Lang Pham are caught in the specific circumstances of that war.

We rejoin two of the women in 1961. By then, Ligaya is able to open her own successful night club. Ada joins her and in a meaningful moment, they read a letter from Min, who continues her progressive political life in Shanghai.

While $79 might seem a steep price for dinner and theatre, I want to point out the food and service are excellent. The Asian-inspired four-course meal that includes dim sum, fried chicken and blackberry pie — supposedly designed to reflect the Chinatown-International District in the 1960s — was served neatly and rapidly, and of course you are encouraged to order thirst-quenching drinks which are not included in the price of the ticket.

The talented playwright-actor-director Sara Porkalob’s one-woman play “Dragon Lady” wowed Seattle audiences two years ago. And she has presented, and continues to develop, parts two and three of “The Dragon Cycle.” Porkalob has been involved in several national and New York projects, so we are fortunate she focuses on the cultural diversity of the Chinatown-International District, with many ethnic groups living among the neighborhood’s larger Japanese American and Chinese American populations.

Today’s CID is a fragile historic ethnic enclave in the south part of Seattle’s downtown. While rich in multinational history and captivating stories of everyday heroes, the CID is in danger of extinction by economic forces as Seattle’s 21st century success bulldozes many parts of the city’s old neighborhoods. Hurrah for Café Nordo’s dramatic contribution to local history with this piece of meaningful musical artistry.

Go see it

“7th and Jackson” at Café Nordo, written and directed by Sara Porkalob, with musical direction by Andrew Pang. Through Aug. 11 at Nordo’s Culinarium in Pioneer Square, $79 ticket includes the performance and a prix fixe dinner, not including beverages.

Online Box Office: bit.ly/7thJacksonNordo