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Feeding the Dragon

Veteran stage actress Sharon Washington tells the story of her growing up in an apartment on the top floor inside of a branch of the New York public library in a charming one-woman show.

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Sharon Washington in a scene from “Feeding the Dragon” (Photo credit: James Leynse)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Actress Sharon Washington had a magical childhood growing up in a huge three bedroom apartment on the top floor inside the St. Agnes Branch of the New York Public Library at 444 Amsterdam Avenue. In this kingdom she lived with her New York City mother, her Charleston, S.C., father, her grandmother, her pet dog Brownie, and a grand piano her parents had bought from the second hand furniture store next door. For Sharon, her father, the custodian of the branch, was like St. George in Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book because he was daily Feeding the Dragon, that is, the boiler in the basement that had to be stoked seven days a week and could not be allowed to go out. After hours and weekends when the library was closed, Sharon had the run of the library’s three floors and all of its books. And no one to tell her what she could not read.

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.

Sharon Washington in a scene from “Feeding the Dragon” (Photo credit: James Leynse)

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

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Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (476 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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