Seattle's Past
4:32 pm
Wed May 21, 2014

Matt Smith's Last Year With The Nuns

Matt Smith in "My Last Year With The Nuns"
Credit John Jeffcoat, courtesy Matt Smith

Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood is hipster central these days: the place to go for the latest in music clubs, trendy restaurants and street style.

That wasn't always the case.

In 1966, when Matt Smith was growing up, Capitol Hill's north end was populated by families. Big Catholic families raising their children in those roomy houses near St. Joseph's Church. Smith was raised just three blocks from St. Joe's, in a relatively small family of four kids. All of them attended the parish school, like most everyone in the neighborhood.

This is the setting for Smith's first film, "My Last Year With the Nuns," which screens May 21 and again May 26 as part of the Seattle International Film Festival.

Matt Smith was in 8th grade in 1966. It was a pivotal year for him — the last one he'd spend at St. Joe's. 1966 was also a pivotal year for America. People were out in the streets, demonstrating for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam. The Catholic Mass was no longer entirely in Latin. But some things hadn't yet changed; Seattle still had invisible boundaries that proscribed where different races could live. Smith's neighborhood was white because banks wouldn't lend money to African Americans who wanted to buy homes there.

Matt Smith first chronicled the turmoil of 1966 in a stage version of his one-man show, "My Last Year With the Nuns." It deals with Smith and his friends from St. Joe's, and their relationship with a group of African American kids they met at the "paper shack": the place where the local kids picked up the newspapers for their daily delivery routes. The show touches on everything from school boy mischief to racism and homophobia. It's a coming of age story for Matt Smith and his friends, but also a story of America's changing attitudes.

Producer Michael Siewrath and director Brett Fetzer convinced Smith to film his solo show at various Capitol Hill locations. They made very few changes to the material, although Smith says they had to cut a couple of good stories. He's thrilled with how the movie turned out, but says he'll probably continue to tour the live show if anybody wants to see it.

These days Matt Smith and his wife, the playwright Elizabeth Heffron, live in Smith's boyhood home with his mother Betty.

"It's a great neighborhood," Smith enthuses. "The location of this place is just incredible. It's just a great place to hang out."

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