Demene E. Hall, an accomplished actor who commanded Seattle stages and screens for decades, died on June 27th.
Last month Hall flew up to Alaska to reprise her solo role in Y York's Sycorax for the Last Frontier Theatre Conference. Within 24 hours, according to director Mark Lutwak, Hall fell ill. She was airlifted to UW Medical Center, but, due to complications related to her illness, Hall decided to end treatment. "She went out the way she wanted to," Lutwak said. "It was under her control, and it was all exactly the way she wanted it."
Lutwak and York first worked with Hall over 25 years ago. She was featured in York's play, The Snowflake Avalanche, which opened up the space at the Group Theatre (which is now the Center Theatre). The team has been working together on and off ever since.
"On the one hand she was a deep, passionate, and intuitive actor," Lutwak said. "And on the other hand so smart about the text, about the language—she was a classically trained actor, and she put that into everything she did."
"She was fierce, but she was also really funny!" Lutwak added. "She could go to all those dark places and see the humor in them."
Lutwak and York most recently worked with Demene on Sycorax, a solo show that fleshed out the life of one of Shakespeare's most interesting and tragically unexplored characters. In The Tempest, Sycorax is Caliban's mother, a witch banished from Algiers and forced to start a new life on an unfamiliar island. Rather than hearing her story from Prospero, the colonizer who drove her away from a land to which she'd already been exiled, audiences got to hear her own version of the events.
"Two years ago Y had this kernel of a play for Sycorax. Demene read it back to us and it came alive," Lutwak said. "Y and Demene and I worked on that script until last fall, and it was an extraordinary artistic partnership. The play was about death and forgiveness and coming to terms with life, about being a black woman—Demene just grabbed it and wrung everything out of it."
Hall was best known around the city as the co-founder of Nu Black Arts West, the oldest African American theater company in Washington State. She also co-wrote and co-directed Dark Divas, a celebration of black women singers that ran for nearly 20 years. This year the show sold out at the Triple Door three days in advance of opening night.
Kibibi Monié, who founded Nu Black Arts West along with Hall and who also wrote Dark Divas, says Hall was "one in a million."
"Her love for the arts and her care for others was legendary," Monié said. "Her style, poise, and dedication to the performing arts was to-the-bone. She taught many, many artists and performers the art of being a dedicated and true-to-the-arts professional. Her knowledge as a professional was without a doubt remarkable, and she loved sharing that knowledge."
"She was a sister that I could count on and love," Monié continued. "A sister from another mother."
Lutwak says the Northwest theatre community is planning a party to celebrate Demene’s life and work in late summer.