Seattle Blacklisting Resurfaces In Local Play

The blacklisting of show people extended far beyond Hollywood and New York.

Seattle had its own reign of Red-bashing. And in one infamous 1948 incident, allegations of political subversion before the state's Canwell Committee on Un-American Activity devastated a popular local theater.

The ruination of the Seattle Repertory Playhouse, and the attack on its co-founders Florence and Burton James, are outlined in "All Powers Necessary or Convenient," a new docudrama by Mark Jenkins. (Several in-progress readings of the script will be given in March, at Freehold Studio. For details, call 323-7499.)

University of Washington drama professor Barry Witham has also examined the James affair, in a historical essay anthologized in the book, "The Performance of Power" (University of Iowa Press).

Florence and Burton James were New Yorkers who came to Seattle to teach at the Cornish College of the Arts. They created the Seattle Repertory Playhouse in 1928 and, says Jenkins, "It became a highly regarded, politically progressive company. It attracted such a good audience that they were able to build and move into a new 300-seat theater on University Way."

In the 1930s, the Playhouse presented controversial modern plays by Clifford Odets and others, and housed the Seattle Negro Company, a government-subsidized unit of the Federal Theater Project.

But in 1948, the Jameses became a prime target of the Canwell Commission, led by Spokane legislator Albert Canwell. Unsupported accusations from unreliable witnesses, Florence's 1930s visits to Russia, and Burton's civil rights activities were used to stigmatize the couple as political subversives.

Along with several UW professors brought before the committee, the Jameses refused on constitutional grounds to answer questions about their political affiliations.

For that they were convicted in court on contempt charges. Their audience support evaporated. And their theater, by then debt-ridden, was sold behind their backs, to the University of Washington. (Now known as the Playhouse Theatre, it currently houses UW student shows.)

A 1950 production of "Pygmalion" was the Seattle Repertory Playhouse's final offering. In 1951, Burton James died, and Florence James moved to Canada. Her subsequent achievements as a theater artist and educator were recognized by the Canadian government before her own death in 1988.