By Samuel L. Leiter
Sharon Washington is an African-American actress of a certain age. I’ve seen her on stage before but never, in my recollection, in a role that demonstrated her considerable talents as vividly as in Feeding the Dragon, the one-woman play that she both wrote and stars in.
Lovingly directed by Maria Mileaf, it had its world premiere in Pittsburgh in 2016, and is now at the Cherry Lane under the auspices of Primary Stages. It’s a perfect example of how a good memory for autobiographical details, coupled with exceptional acting skills (not to mention an ingratiating presence), can make almost anyone’s life compelling theatre.
The most fascinating thing about Washington’s story is that she grew up in a large apartment (with room for a grand piano!) over a library—Manhattan’s St. Agnes Library at Amsterdam Avenue and W. 91st Street—where her father maintained the building. Among his duties was “feeding the dragon,” that is, shoveling coal into its furnace.
Her play describes highlights from her early life, with colorful appearances by some of the people she remembers. These are mainly her mother, father, and other relatives, of course, but also people like Sam and Sophie, the Holocaust survivors who sold odds and ends at a cluttered nearby store.
Although this is the story of a black girl being raised in New York during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Washington does not, as one might expect, make race—or at least not its political dimension—her dominant focus. Her racial references are centered more on ethnic issues, touching on things like accents, hairdos, skin color, the prevalence of the name Washington among black Americans, and even the assertion by many blacks that they have Indian blood, as if that were somehow a status elevator.
Throughout the 80-minute performance, Washington plucks books from those in a pile to one side or embedded in the risers forming her acting platform so she can read brief, inspirational passages from great black writers. These include W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, or James Baldwin. Her own verbal images, though, are as memorably descriptive as anything she reads.
Hers is the universal tale of a girl from a churchgoing (Pentecostal), working-class family whose love of reading was fostered by living in a library, and whose parents, despite the usual marital strains (her dad was an alcoholic), were loving and supportive. Sharon’s scholastic abilities were such that she received a scholarship to Dalton, the exclusive private school.
Her mother’s admonitions about how to behave among her more privileged classmates, or the fear that her mother’s wearing clothing (bought from an Upper East Side thrift shop) might be spotted as a Dalton mother’s discard, are things that would hold true for any working-class child attending such an institution, regardless of race.
Washington’s narrative is mostly confined to lighthearted reminiscences; laughs are gentle but frequent. There are anecdotes about her dog; an artistic uncle she once stayed with; and a time when she and her mom had to feed the dragon.
There’s also a long drive with her dad to visit his folks in Charlotte, NC, which provides a comic bathroom memory, descriptions of her relatives, a watermelon-buying experience, and her discovery that her dad’s middle name is King. That, of course, makes her a king’s daughter.
None of this is particularly deep or socially revelatory, nor is there much of a dramatic arc to it. What makes it special is how entertainingly real Washington makes it seem.
A slim, attractive woman, dressed by Toni-Leslie James in a simple ensemble of jeans, blouse, and cardigan, she often stands with one leg crossed over the other in a classical ballet position. Her graceful body and mimic talents combine to express multiple emotional reactions or to conjure physical items out of thin air. When she shovels coal, you both see and hear it. When she’s hugged, you can feel the arms around her.
She’s also remarkably deft at accents. Washington’s mother sounds like a born-and-bred New Yorker; her father has a raspy North Carolina drawl; Sam and Sophie have authentic Yiddish inflections; and her Deep South relatives use a Gullah-influenced dialect.
Feeding the Dragon benefits from a great-looking set by Tony Ferrieri, suggesting a book-lined library. A row of stained-glass windows hangs upstage, its multiple panes responding brilliantly to Ann G. Wrightson’s exquisite lighting design. And Lindsay Jones provides a perfectly calibrated sound score of original music and golden oldies.
Each season brings any number of solo shows to town, most of them well executed and many with serious socio-political themes. Feeding the Dragon only hints at such themes but its engrossing storytelling and versatile performance make it one of this season’s best.
Photo: James Leynse
Feeding the Dragon
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce St., NYC
Through April 27