I first saw Sharon Washington onstage in Colman Domingo’s Wild With Happy at the Public Theater in 2012. Though Washington was already well into her illustrious career at that point, I was new both to New York and its theater scene. Late in a run that had been hampered by Hurricane Sandy, I slipped in and was blown away by Domingo’s riotous and heartwarming work. Its success was due in no small part to Washington – playing both the protagonist’s mother and his aunt, Washington stole the show twice over.
Now Washington is playing closer to 20 characters in Feeding the Dragon, the solo show she wrote and performs, here given its New York premiere by Primary Stages (at the Cherry Lane Theatre). The show chronicles Washington’s own childhood living in an apartment above the St. Agnes Branch of the New York Public Library, where her father George was the custodian. As a child she roamed free in the library, playing in the stacks and reading fervently. Her father’s main duty was stoking the building’s ancient furnace, a strenuous physical task that Washington observed with delight. “To me,” she recalls, “the furnace room was an enchanted cave where I could watch Daddy feed the Dragon.”
Washington clearly relishes drawing us into the world of her childhood, and that delight is infectious. I could happily listen to her speak for hours. With a guide this joyous, the first great hurdle of any solo show has already been overcome. Indeed, as Washington touches on different parts of her childhood, I only wanted to hear more — more about her piano lessons, her favorite books, and her fish-out-of-water experience at The Dalton School. Instead these topics are touched on briefly.
Few theatergoers would complain about a solo show being quick on its feet, and at first, the swift pace of Washington’s script fits well with her energy. After a time though, I did long for more detail. An aspect Washington most conspicuously skips over is herself. What kind of young girl was she? Beyond her love of books, we don’t really find out. A greater sense of young Washington could have brought this show an emotional throughline.
Instead, Dragon mostly sticks to vignettes – though what wonderful vignettes they can be. Particularly moving is a visit to Uncle Gene, an artist with whom young Washington shared a connection. She watches him paint a woman sitting on a bench. “I paint the world the way I think it should be,” says Gene. “Warm colors advance. Cool colors recede.” Her younger self shrugs that the painting is “beautiful” – but then, seamlessly, her older self seems to take over. Eyes brimming, Washington takes in the painting fully, noting its sadness: “She’s all by herself and…she looks sad. And scared. And…alone.”
In this moment and many others, Maria Mileaf’s direction unfortunately works against Washington. Moments of significance are needlessly underlined with lighting shifts and underscoring. Another central scene depicts Washington’s mother “feeding the Dragon” herself after her father lets it die — here too, Mileaf drives home the point with a heavy-handed music cue. Washington does not need help emphasizing these moments – her passion and physicality does all the work.
Still, the play’s quieter scenes — like Gene’s painting – do hit home. While Dragon lacks an emotional or thematic throughline, each section is individually effective. Washington also deals unsentimentally with her father’s alcoholism, the play’s most challenging topic. By introducing his addiction well after we have gotten to know George, Washington smartly draws a hard distinction between the man and his disease.
The show’s final section shifts focus to George — specifically, to a road trip he and Washington took back to his hometown of Charleston. The road trip initially feels like a strange turn, and the audience’s patience seemed to wane. In the days since, however, these scenes have remained with me most strongly, maybe because only here does Washington stick with a world and truly live in it. It’s initially disappointing to have left the St Agnes library so far behind. But in concluding this way, Washington has a point to make. The fairy tale of “the little girl who lived in the library” is not a fairy tale. But more than that, it is inextricable from her father’s hard work, and her mother’s struggle, and her family’s place in America. The Washingtons’ story may not be on the shelves of their library – but it holds their history.
Feeding the Dragon runs to April 27. More production info can be found here.