“Once upon a time, there was a little girl who lived in a library…”
So begins Sharon Washington’s one-woman play Feeding the Dragon, an enchanting recollection of her formative years in the early 1970s when her family occupied an apartment on the top floor of the St. Agnes Branch of the New York Public Library, courtesy of her father’s job as the librarian’s 24/7 custodian.
Part memoir, part social history, Washington’s tale echoes the New York city childhood depicted in novels like E. L. Konigsburg’s The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler or Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me. Like the protagonists in those novels, hers was a childhood marked by independence and a sense of security within a tight-knit neighborhood. And like the museum in Konigsburg’s tale, the library was Washington’s own personal playground after hours, its walled-in roof a safe place to hopscotch or learn to ride a bike, its grand staircase the perfect setting for staging plays with her best friend.
But Washington’s coming-of-age story plays out against the background of the civil rights movement, and she registers with acuity the social gymnastics she had to master as a minority scholarship student in a selective private school: “I perfected my code-switching skills on my own. Early, and fast.” Moreover, the adult Washington, looking back on the era, deftly illuminates aspects of her parents’ experience that her younger self had either been prevented from perceiving, or would have been unable to comprehend. So, for example, she recalls a road trip with her father to South Carolina when he had difficulty finding a gas station that would allow her to use the restroom. As a child she only understands that the toilet she has to use is disgustingly dirty, and she is puzzled by her dad’s haste to move on; it’s only in retrospect that she realizes her father was shielding her from the reality of the Jim Crow South.
The dragon of the title is both the coal-fired furnace in the library’s basement that her father must keep constantly stoked, and the alcoholism that shapes her childhood and rives her family. Like Benjamin Scheuer’s The Lion, which played last season at City Theatre, Washington’s engrossing and moving play provokes rumination on how hard it is to know our parents, especially our fathers – and perhaps most of all for those of us who grew up in the sixties and seventies.
Washington is a generous and engaging storyteller who slips in and out of the many characters she deploys in the service of her story with ease and conviction. Her performance is made even more spellbinding by the production elements incorporated under Maria Mileaf’s direction, in particular by Lindsay Jones’s sound design and Ann G. Wrightson’s lighting. Jones’s original music lifts the story into its fairy tale dimension with fantastical touches like strums of a harp at key moments of discovery, or a chorus of angels heralding young Sharon’s attempts to squeeze a diamond out of a piece of coal. Wrightson’s ingenious lighting design transforms the upstage wall of window panes as the mood and setting requires, using an array of colors to achieve such effects as the earth tones of a stained glass window, the cobalt of a midnight sky, and the deep red of the furnace’s fire. Wrightson also makes the bookshelves of Tony Ferrieri’s eloquent set glow, giving the entire space an ethereal luminescence befitting both the play’s fairy tale mood and the “king’s daughter” whose tale it is to tell.