Stage review: Actress gets real about family life in a library
November 1, 2016 12:00 AM
Sharon Washington performs in "Feeding the Dragon," her one-woman show based on her childhood, at the City Theatre.
Sharon Washington recounts growing up in a library in her one-woman show, "Feeding the Dragon," at the South Side's City Theatre through Nov. 20.
By Sharon Eberson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Feeding the Dragon” could be the title of a medieval epic or an episode of “Game of Thrones.” It’s fanciful and adventurous with an element of danger, not unlike the real-life story of a little girl who lived in a library.
Accomplished actress Sharon Washington was that little girl whose life was all those things, some fueled by the many books at her fingertips, some by family, some by what it was like to be an 11-year-old African-American making her way through New York City in the 1970s.
Moving, bittersweet and ultimately uplifting, the solo show “Feeding the Dragon” is having its world premiere at City Theatre. It’s the story of a family and, like all family stories, there are jubilant highs and devastating lows and a lot more fun and pain in between. What sets this one apart, besides the unusual setting, is Ms. Washington herself, an assured performer whose presence and passion elevate even the most subtle moments of her tale.
‘Feeding the Dragon’
Where: City Theatre, Lester Hamburg Studio, 1300 Bingham St., South Side.
When: When: Through Nov. 20. 7 p.m. Tuesdays; 1 and/or 7 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 1, 5:30 and/or 9 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays (check citytheatrecompany.org for full schedule). Show runs less than 90 minutes with no intermission.
Tickets: $37.50-$59.50; under 30 may reserve $15 tickets in advance, with exceptions; 62 and older may purchase $22 rush tickets at the box office beginning two hours before showtime. 412-431-CITY (2489) or citytheatrecompany.org.
She leads us on a sometimes windy path through time to her childhood, at a time when the daughter of George and Connie Washington was growing up in an enviable three-bedroom apartment on the top floor of the St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library. There was room enough for Connie’s mother to live with them, and they even had a dog, Brownie.
The entrance to the apartment was inside the building, which meant everyone in the family had keys to the front door — for young Sharon, the keys to a kingdom of literary wonders.
The music that leads to Ms. Washington’s appearance onstage is the circa-1971 Temptations song “Just My Imagination,” setting the time and mood before the Hamburg Studio stage goes dark. When lights go on to reveal the casually dressed actress, she introduces herself and tells us she is about to tell the tale she has been asked to tell many times, about the girl who lived in a library.
She begins with “once upon a time,” then puts her storytelling skills to work, unfolding delicious details from a child’s eye view of family and city life. She channels her 11-year-old self with delightful moments such as mimicking her dog with peanut butter in its mouth and demonstrating how she and her friend acted out death scenes with the library as their playground.
When she speaks of the two dominant figures in her life, her mother and father, the embers of her story glow brightest. From her father's Charleston drawl to her mother's New Yawk accent, Ms. Washington never misses a beat in making each character distinct and compellingly real.
George, a Southerner and veteran, was the maintenance worker of a library that followed the Carnegie design and had an apartment for the person who cleaned, polished and kept the furnace glutted with coal — enough to heat a four-story building 24 hours a day. To a little girl who had her pick of the bookshelves and whose head was filled with stories of faraway places and portals to other worlds, the furnace was a hungry dragon and her father, a chivalrous knight wielding not a shovel but a sword — “Saint George and the Dragon.”
Ms. Washington can turn on a dime from the young to the adult Sharon, reflecting on any given moment. One such remembrance, made clear in hindsight, is of her mother proudly wearing a secondhand dress to a parent-teachers night at the prestigious, expensive Dalton School, where young Sharon was a student on scholarship. She wonders now if another mother might have recognized it as one that she discarded.
The new play has been nurtured at City Theatre with dramaturg Clare Drobot and directed by Maria Mileaf. This is a top-to-bottom women’s team with the notable exception of set designer Tony Ferrieri, who, with lighting designer Ann G. Wrightson, have given the intimate Hamburg depth and height, with wood steps doubling as bookshelves and checkered windows glowing in colors that change with the tide of the tale.
Strategic changes in lighting represent what bells and whistles there are in the production. The rest belong to the stately Washington, who has a recurring role as a judge on “Law & Order: SVU.” She grew up to earn two Ivy League degrees and use them and her talent to be a teller of other’s stories.
With “Feeding the Dragon,” she finally gets to use her considerable talent to share her own.
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960. Twitter: @SEberson_pg.
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