In “Feeding the Dragon” — Sharon Washington’s delightfully acted memoir about an enchanted childhood spent literally living in a branch of the New York Public Library — we learn at least three ways her life was affected by the unusual arrangement.
Her father worked as the custodian at the stately 1906 granite St. Agnes branch at 81st and Amsterdam, and so from 1969 to 1973 his family was given the luxurious apartment above the three floors of wood and marble, books and brass that it was his job to polish every day.
To his daughter during those wonder years, the library represented “three floors of prime performance space,” where after closing and on weekends she acted out scenarios (aka improvs) with her best friend Esther; “we specialized in death scenes.” It shouldn’t surprise us that she wound up a graduate of the Yale School of Drama and a respected professional actress. The best thing about “Feeding the Dragon” is Washington’s spot-on impersonations of the characters from her childhood – even at one point the family dog, Brownie, as she chews and licks the peanut butter Sharon gave her on a biscuit, “her tongue making these loud smacking noises as it lapped around her nose.”
A childhood surrounded by books is also evident in the way “Feeding the Dragon” is steeped in exactly apt literary references: She reads short passages from W.E.B. DuBois, James Baldwin, and Zora Neale Hurston, which help provide a deeper context for her experience and that of her family as black people in America. A charming raconteur, Washington enhances her storytelling by sharply detailed observations literately expressed, which seem to reflect a lifetime as an avid reader. And her love of words is manifest in such lovely scenes as the one with her live-in grandmother going word by word, and bird by bird, through the library copy of Birds of America by John James Audubon
News of her childhood home seems to have excited enough people who have heard about it over the years — “It’s like a fairytale: The Little Girl Who Lived in the Library!”/“You HAVE to tell that story – that it apparently convinced the 58-year-old Washington to make it the subject of her playwriting debut. As an actress, Sharon Washington has appeared as the eldest daughter of a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s in “Dot,” actor Colman Domingo’s impressive foray into playwriting, and as a family member in ‘While I Yet Live,’ performer Billy Porter’s foray into playwriting. Both of these were dramatic works clearly derived from autobiography, and they too might have provided her some inspiration to follow suit.
The stumbling block here is that either Washington didn’t feel there was enough material in the library, or that it was not of sufficient interest to her, for her to stay focused on the library adventures all the way through.
The title refers to the coal furnace in the library’s basement that her father had to feed every day, and that his young daughter saw as a dragon. But it also suggests the dragon that her father faced – his alcoholism – which we discover about half way through the 90-minute play, when he takes Sharon to a bar across the street from the library, gives her a Shirley Temple, and tells her not to tell her mother where they went. But her mother finds out, and the second half seems to be taken up with the repercussions of his relapse. This would be fine, except that suddenly Sharon is staying with her aunt and uncle in Queens, and then taking a trip to her father’s hometown in South Carolina. Her depictions of these new characters are just as expert, but the library no longer figures in her stories, and it’s hard not to feel as if we’ve detoured into a second play.
Luckily, the design team keeps us visually in that library, with Tony Ferrieri’s set full of books and card catalogues. The window backdrop, thanks to Ann G. Wrighton’s lighting, transforms with each of Washington’s reminiscences (at one point it becomes the stained glass of a church window; at another the lights in a 70s disco), but through it all stays firmly library-like. It’s as if to say, a library is so magical it can take you anywhere.
Feeding the Dragon
Primary Stages at Cherry Lane
Written and performed by Sharon Washington; Directed by Maria Mileaf
Set by Tony Ferrieri, lighting by Ann G. Wrightson, costumes by Toni-Leslie James, sound and original music by Lindsay Jones
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Feeding the Dragon is scheduled to run through April 27, 2018