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Sharon Washington's solo memoir examines her unusual New York City upbringing
Sharon Washington loves being an actor. That comes through in her autobiographical solo show Feeding the Dragon, presented by Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Yet despite her 30 years onscreen and stage, the show focuses on a time before she found the spotlight, when her life was defined by books.
"I actually had no intention of doing this as a play," Washington says about the show, which chronicles her years growing up in an apartment on the top floor of an Upper West Side New York Public Library branch. Her father was a custodian whose duties included keeping the furnace in the basement stoked with coal day and night. As a child, Washington imagined that the fire-breathing machine was a dragon that she and her family had to keep fed…or else! "When I first started writing I thought, I was a little bookworm, the little girl who lived in the library, so I saw it as a book," she says. "I could see the illustrations of the girl peeking around the corner by the furnace."
But a prose version of Washington's story was not to be. "Writing children's books? That's hard!" she says. "I just kept getting stuck on what the story was."
Luckily, in her long and fruitful performing career, she's made some talented friends who were happy to steer her in the right direction. "I pride myself on being a collaborator on new plays -- that's where my joy has been in the last several years," says Washington, who's helped premiere works by Colman Domingo (Dot, Wild With Happy) among others. "I would send it out and get notes from people, and they'd say, 'Well, it's great, but you know this is a play, right?' And it honestly never occurred to me -- and certainly not as a solo show."
This curious blind spot on Washington's part harks back to her youth when she wasn't even sure she wanted to act. "I was the first one in my family to graduate college," she says. "I wasn't supposed to go off and be a broke actor…and I didn't want to be a broke actor!" She hedged her bets by working on the administrative side at first, serving as producer Barry Grove's assistant at Manhattan Theatre Club. "But my heart really wanted to be onstage," she says. Feeding the Dragon, it turned out, felt the same way.
Once Domingo, Robert O'Hara, and other colleagues set Washington straight, she entered into a lengthy developmental process, which took her across the Hudson to New Jersey's Two River Theater, and then up to the campus of her alma mater, Dartmouth, for New York Theatre Workshop's Summer Residency Program. The piece had its official debut in 2016 at City Theatre Company in Pittsburgh, where she and director Maria Mileaf (a fellow New York native) continued to tinker. Much like a library, the show's almost too full of ideas. "People find out I've lived in a library and they're like, 'Oh my God, that's an incredible story!' And then I start telling the story, and I keep getting a little derailed because as I'm trying to tell this fairy tale, the flip side starts coming out."
That flip side includes recollections of demons less magical than a dragon: a father's fear, a mother's disappointment, a country reeling from decades of racial upheaval (the family moved into the library apartment in 1969). So while the surroundings of Washington's upbringing are unique, there's plenty in her theatrical memoir that will resonate with general audiences, particularly women of color and New Yorkers of a certain age.
"I've always had a really good ear," Washington says. "My mother would say, 'She's a great mimic, she can do sister so-and-so from church.'" Her mother was right. The diverse voices of the city in the early '70s are expertly reproduced in Washington's performance, from Mr. Sam, the kindly Jewish junk dealer downstairs, to Uncle Gene, a proud black man who would rather hop around his Queens apartment on one leg than wear a prosthetic limb of the wrong "flesh" color.
Finally Feeding the Dragon is back where it began, in New York City, for which Washington is grateful. "I have a chance to tell my story at home and have wonderful conversations with people," she says. The experience is especially poignant because the era of "custodial families" is now in the past. The coal furnaces have all been replaced by modern heating systems and, consequently, the library apartments are no longer occupied.
"There are so many reasons that I wanted to write this story," Washington says. "Part of it is, I want people to know: we were there. There were families that were there, occupying that same space in a very different way. When those apartments are gone, the stories go with them." Fortunately, one "little bookworm" is keeping them alive for us.
Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker, and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre.
Top image: Sharon Washington in Feeding the Dragon. Photos by James Leynse.