I was transported to a world of childhood innocence and awakening in early 1970s New York in Sharon Washington's funny and moving one-woman autobiographical play, Feeding the Dragon, a Primary Stages production at the Cherry Lane Theatre through tomorrow.
Actress and writer Washington is a gifted purveyor of the special story she has to share, that a child growing up with her parents, maternal Gramma Ma and dog, Brownie, in a three-bedroom apartment on top of the St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library on the Upper West Side from 1969 to 1973. “A typical American family. Living in a not-so-typical place,” as she says.
Before furnaces were regulated automatically, a caretaker had to shovel coal into them 24/7 to keep the heat and hot water going. Washington's father was that man in the library at 444 Amsterdam Avenue.
"It was like a fairy tale of the little girl who lived in the library," Washington begins. "Once upon a time . . ."
For the next 90 minutes I lived that world through the child's eyes as well as through the adult's interpretation. Under Maria Mileaf’s direction, Washington unfolds her story lovingly, even as she relates the “flip side" of her fairy tale, the discovery that her father is an alcoholic who falls off the wagon one day after becoming weary of the demands of his job.
Until that day her world has indeed seemed like a fairy tale. When the library closed for the day, and on Sunday, the three floors below her apartment were hers to explore. She read voraciously and also launched her acting career with the melodramas she and a friend performed. Washington had me laughing out loud as she throws herself on the floor for an especially dramatic dying scene.
That little girl was creative, and she was also smart. Sharon received a scholarship to the exclusive Dalton School on the Upper East Side, joining a world of white privilege that was new to her. This gives Washington a chance to comment on black life in New York at the time, with far more fondness than bitterness, especially when talking about her family's heavy involvement with their church.
Faith was a guiding star, and Washington portrays this well in the second of two parallel scenes. The Dragon of the play's title lives in the basement, which is lit with only a single bulb hanging from the ceiling. The slanted vents in the giant silver furnace look like eyes to the little girl and its big metal grate “could definitely pass for teeth.”
“I loved watching my Daddy work. He was like a knight from my Blue Fairy book — St. George and The Dragon. He stood between the terrible beast and me and I wasn’t afraid.”
Washington mimes her father's motions of digging into the pile of coal, lifting the heavy shovelful and turning to hurl it into the furnace. She supplies the “CRUNCH . . . SWOOSH” sounds she remembers so well. It's a sweet scene of a little girl who loves to be with her father.
The contrasting scene again finds Sharon in the basement for the feeding of The Dragon, but this time she is with her mother who has awaken her and told her to put on her robe and shoes and come to help. Her father's alcoholism has incapacitated him and the library is cold and needs to build heat before opening. Her mother summons all her strength and faith for the task.
Washington acts out that memory of her mother looking into the darkness of The Dragon’s belly, pressing imaginary bellows in hopes of stirring a spark and beginning her urgent and intensifying recitation of Psalm 91, "He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.”
She continues to press the bellows, interspersed with verses of the Psalm. Finally a spark becomes a tiny flame. She drags the tall metal shovel to the coal pile and Sharon grabs the handle to help, adding her voice to her mother’s. “He shall call upon me, and I will answer him.”
After much work, her prayer is answered as the coals catch fire. “With long life will I satisfy him, and shew him my salvation.” It's a powerful scene, beautifully and tightly enacted. No props are needed. I could see it all in my mind.
The sense of The Dragon’s flickering resuscitation is enhanced by Ann G. Wrightson’s lighting as she slowly takes the stage from darkness to light. Her lighting allows Tony Ferrieri’s simple single set to transform easily from its cozy library feeling — three book-lined steps, an old oak table, big paned windows and a shiny wooden floor — to the basement and a few other locations of Sharon’s world. Small stacks of real books allow Washington to read from the authors who were important to her — among them Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The world of the little girl who lives in the library is so well created that I wish Washington had limited her tale to just that. The spell was temporarily broken for me when she recounts Sharon’s time with her aunt and uncle in Queens, with whom she spends three weeks following her father’s setback, and later her road trip with her father to visit her paternal relatives in Charleston, SC. She portrays all the new characters nicely, just as she has her immediate family and neighbors, but that time weakened the focus of the story.
But it wasn’t enough to spoil the experience for me. By the time Washington concluded with the words “I am the story” I was teary.
I saw the matinee on Sunday and the charm of the performance is still with me. Feeding the Dragon is Washington’s debut as a playwright. As an actress for three decades she has established herself across mediums, having appeared on Broadway in The Scottsboro Boys, numerous Off-Broadway and regional productions, as well as film and television. Seeing her in Dragon has been a highlight of my 2017-2018 season.
(Photo: James Leynse)
(Photo: James Leynse)