In her autobiographical solo piece Feeding the Dragon (Primary Stages), Sharon Washington tells us that, when her mother became pregnant at 42, the doctors warned her that, at her age, the baby would be “either very intelligent or Mongoloid.” I am happy to report that the first alternative turned out to be true: As Feeding the Dragon shows us, Sharon Washington is very, very intelligent. In addition to which, she’s a delightful person to be around for ninety minutes, with a fine actor’s capacity for transformation and a born storyteller’s knack for casting a magical haze over even the most everyday events.
Both abilities evolved naturally out of the improbable childhood Washington’s show describes. She literally spent several formative years in a branch of the New York Public Library — the St. Agnes branch, on Amsterdam Avenue and West 81st Street, where from 1969 to 1973 her father, the caretaker charged with keeping the library’s coal furnace burning, resided with his family (wife, daughter Sharon, mother-in-law, dog) in an apartment on the building’s top floor. The furnace, in the child Sharon’s book-stuffed imagination, became the dragon of her reminiscence’s title, its ventilator slits the burning eyes, its lower compartment the fiery maw her father had to keep constantly fed with the coal stacked high in the basement’s furnace room. The operation, as she describes it, was a daring, delicate, and fascinating one.
The furnace-dragon becomes one of several motifs elegantly woven through Washington’s script, which is rarely high-powered drama but is constantly charming as it hops its seemingly carefree — but in fact subtly calculated — way from lightly humorous anecdotes of childhood misunderstandings to episodes of deep familial grief. Beyond these concerns, Washington also evokes a dawning comprehension of the confusing and often cruel world hovering outside the enchanted life of a book-loving girl alone at night in a multistory library. We see the emergence of her theatrical sense not only in the fantasies she builds from her reading, but in — after she wins a scholarship to the East Side’s upper-crust Dalton School — her growing awareness of the differences in talk and behavior between her smartly attired classmates and the less clothes-conscious people on the Upper West Side streets around her multi-volumed home.
With these realities of race and class come, too, other adumbrations of a changing world, touching on everything from how to dress for a party at Studio 54 to how to behave when taken down South to visit her father’s family in Charleston. Each story opens a new vista, yet each also links, quietly, to matters raised earlier. The effect is cumulative: the shaping of an artist’s personality, itself an anomaly, in an anomalous situation within a world we know to be troublesome and potentially terrifying. Acting, mimicking, presenting, or narrating, Washington is always a figure to watch. Credit Maria Mileaf’s unobtrusive direction not only with helping Washington keep on track but with lending input that surely helped create Tony Ferrieri’s delightful library set — a room of bookshelves, wood railings, and multipaned windows, lit with ingenious variety by Ann G. Wrightson, that any bibliophile would want to curl up in.