In Feeding the Dragon, Washington, a charming and graceful performer, tells her own luminous story of living in two worlds, her life behind the door marked “Private” on the third floor which was like going through the portal in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and her life on the other side of that landing in the public world which included attending the exclusive Dalton School as one if not the only student of color, warned by her mother “Don’t call too much attention to yourself.” Washington uses a distinctly different voice for each member of her immediate family as well as Mr. Sam and Miss Sophie in the store next door, Aunt Gene and Aunt Sis in Queens, and her Grandmother Washington and Aunt Thelma who she finally meets on a week’s car trip with her father to visit them in Charleston.
Periodically she picks up a favorite book or gives us a quotation: Gone with the Wind, poems by Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, John James Audubon’s Birds of America, The Souls of Black Folk by W.E. B. DuBois. We travel with her to the roof of the library with its 15 feet walls which make it safe to play in, the East Side to her elite school, her church where her family spent all day on Sunday, to Hollis to visit her New York relatives and on a car trip with her father to see his family where both the lingo and the mores are unfamiliar to her. Tony Ferrieri’s single setting cleverly stands in for the different floors of the library as well as the other places Washington takes us to with its banks of books on several levels, card file cabinets at either end of the stage, a library table and wooden arm chair and five banks of windows with panes in various colors. Ann G. Wrightson’s lighting changes their color, creating various places and times of day. Lindsay Jones’ sound design brings the noises of the city to our ears through the library walls.
However, there are snakes in Eden. It is revealed eventually that her father is an alcoholic and that he continually falls off the wagon which she discovers when he takes her for a Shirley Temple at the bar across the street from them on Amsterdam. On the way to Charleston, Sharon does not at first realize why her father will not stop at any bathrooms they pass along the way, but later realizes she has had her first confrontation with racism. Surprisingly, the tone of Feeding the Dragon remains light throughout as though Washington has made a conscious choice not to delve very deeply into to what could have brought this memoir close to tragedy.
Under the assured direction of Maria Mileaf in a production which started at the Hartford Stage earlier this year, Sharon Washington is a captivating and entertaining presence both as she narrates her story and also gives commentary and hints of her life since then. Told with the innocence of childhood, Feeding the Dragon will also enchant readers and nostalgia buffs alike, for the world that she describes does not exist anymore now that libraries are high tech places ruled by computers and other media – and without apartments for a live-in staff at the top of the building.
Feeding the Dragon (through April 27, 2018)
Primary Stages & Hartford Stage
Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, west of Seventh Ave So., in Manhattan
For tickets, call OvationTix 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.PrimaryStages.org
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission