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Theatre in Review: Feeding the Dragon (Primary Stages/Cherry Lane Theatre)

Sharon Washington. Photo: James Leynse.

When I was a boy, I would have loved nothing more than to live in a library -- for this bookish youth, it would have been the perfect wedding of supply and demand -- and I am frankly envious that Sharon Washington got to do so. In fact, she and her family dwelled in several libraries during her childhood; Feeding the Dragon focuses on the years 1969-73, when she, her parents, a grandmother, and a pet dog inhabited the top floor of the St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library on the Upper West Side.

This is one of those details that make New York such a fascinating place to live. Washington doesn't go into it, but because the network of branch libraries -- funded by the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in the early part of the twentieth century -- had coal furnaces, they needed custodians, who lived in, with their families, and kept the fires stoked. As the actress notes, the St. Agnes apartment was a New Yorker's dream, with three bedrooms, an eat-in kitchen, and enough room for the baby grand piano on which she took her music lessons. Her father worked hard, to be sure, cleaning, polishing, and, most of all, hauling coal and shoveling it into that furnace, the activity that gives the piece its title. So natural was this live-work situation that, she says, "I'd never really thought about what would happen to us if one day Daddy couldn't do his job."

As it happens, that question will become an urgent one, but, for much of its running time, Feeding the Dragon consists of delightful reminiscences that bring to life New York in all its gritty midcentury glory. Clearly, living among the stacks gave her an acute eye and a writer's sensibility: Consider her description of the neighborhood junkman with a "long number tattooed on his lower left arm" and his female companion with "her little heart-shaped face that pinched all together at the mouth," with lips that were "Crayola crayon red" and "two rows of the biggest teeth I've ever seen." Her grandmother, she notes, had skin "the color of those individually wrapped Kraft caramel candies."

Such precocious observations aren't surprising, coming from the 11-year-old who brought a copy of Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex -- But Were Afraid to Ask to school, showing it off to her friends. Feeding the Dragon is filled with delicious episodes like this: She provides an amusing demonstration of several New York mothers leaning out their apartment windows and shouting at their kids to come home. Describing the family's constant churchgoing, she says, "Sunday morning started with Sunday school at 9am, followed by Sunday morning service at 11am, which ended around 2pm. Three if someone caught the Holy Ghost." Recalling the constant battle, waged by her mother, to give her straight hair, she has fun with the notion that Indian ancestry "was one of those folk legends that every black family laid claim to if someone had 'good' hair. She quotes Zora Neale Hurston: "I am the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on the mother's side was not an Indian chief."

So entertaining are these stories, and so adept is Washington at telling them, with her warm personality and faultless timing, that it may take you some time to notice that Feeding the Dragon isn't headed anywhere in particular. The question about her father and his job performance eventually becomes a reality, after an unexpected, impromptu trip to the bar across the street -- where she is served her first Shirley Temple -- reveals a crack in her family that she never knew existed. Her father disappears for a time, and Washington and her mother are forced to assume his duties; it is then that she learns exactly how much effort feeding the dragon takes. Even in these passages, however, the piece is really a collection of events that happened to her on the way to growing up, and the family crisis dissipates, only to recur over and over again, without a resolution. The absence of drama is apparent in the last quarter or so of this ninety-minute show, when the lack of urgency is rather keenly felt.

Still, under the direction of Maria Mileaf, Washington is, for the most part, excellent company, and she has been given an elegant setting by her design team. Tony Ferrieri's multilevel set is packed with books and backed by a series of leaded windows that Ann G. Wrightson, the lighting designer, turns into a kind of rainbow display, at times delivering a different color to each pane. (I have no idea how she manages this, but there isn't a drop of spillage anywhere.) Toni-Leslie James has dressed her attractively, and Lindsay Jones has provided some pleasant original music in addition to a lineup of effects, including such 1970s standards as "Want Ads," "Just My Imagination," and "It's Too Late," along with traffic noise, disco music, what sounds like a bit of a movie score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and the Mills Brothers singing "If I Didn't Care."

One of Washington's best features is that she isn't afraid to turn her eagle eye for absurdity on herself. "Don't call too much attention to yourself" -- that was her mother's constant admonition, aimed at keeping a young black girl out of trouble on the city's streets. "Right," Washington says. "And I end up an actress." If you see Feeding the Dragon, you'll likely be pretty happy about that career choice. -- David Barbour


(4 April 2018)

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