The Girls of Grunge
New play These Streets spotlights the songs and stories of Seattle’s hard-rocking women of the ’90s.
It’s hard to imagine there’s an untold story of grunge in our city, given the tomes (and art exhibits and documentaries) on Nirvana alone. But when a 250-page history of Seattle’s rock heyday, The Strangest Tribe, only includes a page and a half on the women of the era—calling it “The Female Presence”—something feels…wrong. Like a female guitarist was some kind of elusive Bengal tiger, caught only briefly on tape.
As cocreator of the new play that rocks, These Streets, writer and performer Sarah Rudinoff aims to give the women of grunge their due. “When people think of the women of the scene, they go, oh yeah, Riot Grrrls. Which was completely different. It was women in Olympia and a totally different scene,” she says. “Not every band in the Northwest was a Riot Grrrl.”
Which local female rockers can we name from the late ’80s and early ’90s? The ones that stand out come tagged with tragedy: Mia Zapata, lead singer of punk band the Gits, who was brutally raped and murdered on her way home from a Capitol Hill bar in 1993, or guitarist Stefanie Sargent of 7 Year Bitch, who died of a heroin overdose in ’92. The hard-rocking women succumbed to the same demons as their male counterparts—and had similar out-of-body experiences when their hometown music scene was suddenly thrust into an international spotlight. Their successes and struggles, though, are largely overlooked and their music in dire need of proper play, says Rudinoff. That’s where she comes in. Rudinoff is in a unique position to turn a part of our city’s history into live theater. In addition to being a Stranger Genius–certified singer and actress—and one-half of the rock duo We Are Golden—she’s a product of the time. A native of Hawaii, she moved to Seattle a year out of college, in 1994, just after Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Cue the record scratch.
With bandmate Gretta Harley, a New York–born guitarist who relocated here in 1990 and rode the grunge wave, Rudinoff spent the past two years interviewing 40 local players from that decade—Lazy Susan’s Kim Virant, Kim Warnick of the Fastbacks, Carrie Akre of Hammerbox and Goodness. Some enjoyed success; others just a brief mention in the University of Washington student newspaper. All informed the script—written by Harley, Rudinoff, and actress-playwright Elizabeth Kenny—and the ’90s punk-rock soundtrack, which will be performed live nightly. These Streets, opening February 21 at ACT, distills the most dynamic tales as a blending of two fictional narratives. One thread sounds like a Real World premise: Five musicians in their 20s share a house in Seattle from 1989 to 1994, when the city throbbed with heavy guitar riffs and everyone’s attire was thrift-store chic. The other story line finds these women in the present day, reflecting on those darker, scrappier times with a KEXP DJ.
“We created conflicts that were realistic to the time and things that happen to bands and why they break up and why people get pissed off at each other,” says Rudinoff. In the process of writing the play, they catalogued dozens of first--person accounts that will be archived at the UW as an oral history of grunge (the untold story) and gathered memorabilia for an accompanying exhibit at the Project Room in Capitol Hill. Excerpts of the interviews have been posted online and include telling statements about female artists in a man’s world. Start with former Bell guitarist Vanessa Veselka: “When I was growing up on guitar, there were, like, no women guitarists, and people would say to me, That’s not true! And they would name the same 10 female guitarists including every genre. There’s Charo, there’s Joan Armatrading, there’s Joni Mitchell, there’s Bonnie Raitt, there’s that chick from Heart… I was 24 years old before I met a female guitarist who played like I did.”
Female guitarists aren’t as elusive anymore—the new Bengal tiger is the female rapper. She too has a role in this story. By casting rising Seattle musicians in their 20s to play…well, rising Seattle musicians in their 20s, These Streets manages to look both backward and forward. Hollis Wong-Wear, a 25-year-old spoken-word artist who holds her own freestyling in a circle full of men, joins the show shortly after being on the Heist tour with hip-hop duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. (Wong-Wear is featured on their track “White Walls.”) She says the parallel between her character, Kyla, and career is striking.
“Attention is coming to Seattle in a really new and exciting way because of hip-hop that could be comparable to, like, what the grunge movement became,” says Wong-Wear over the phone, en route to yet another airport. “There are so many people that are becoming successful…and none of their success is threatening anybody else. It’s all raising the profile and raising the awareness of our city. For a new sonic identity and new sonic personality, ’cause everywhere else it’s still ‘Seattle Nirvana.’ ”
Published: February 2013