“Feeding the Dragon”: A delicately profound memoir
The first moments of “Feeding the Dragon,” written and performed by Sharon Washington and running through February 4th at Hartford Stage, establish all we need to know about this quietly enthralling play. As soon as we step into the theater, we have entered the reading room of The New York Public Library, and as soon as Washington ambles into the space, before the obligatory announcements are over and before she has said a word, she has become someone we want to know, and simultaneously, someone we are already friends with.
Beginning with the lightest of irony, “Once upon a time. . .,” Washington tells us about her experiences as an African-American girl growing up in the top story apartment reserved for the janitor of the library’s St. Agnes branch, and his family. The library is a wondrous and magical place for book-loving young Washington (hence the fairy tale metaphors that she uses throughout), but the play’s main focus is on her parents: Daddy, who came from South Carolina, and Mommy, a proud New Yorker. When she tells us that Mommy was the yin to Daddy’s yang, she sets us up to believe that we’re about to hear that sweet but familiar narrative in which opposites attract. However, like nearly all of this whip-smart script, we gradually learn, along with young Sharon, that this relationship is far more complicated.
Indeed, the skill of Washington’s writing lies in its subtle structure and in the way she uses understatement to create surprise. Apparently innocent or comical events and anecdotes gather weight as the play moves along; and she creates scenes that have a clear arc and a satisfying, or at times, a devastating, finish.
Washington is equally skilled as an actress, and director Maria Mileaf has made an intelligent choice in coaching her to portray distinctively, but with a light touch, the other characters who populate her world. Rather than impersonating, Washington suggests Mommy, Daddy, Grandma Ma, and various relatives with precise shifts in voice and posture. Since “Feeding the Dragon” is a coming of age story, this approach clearly defines young Sharon as its sometimes bewildered protagonist (grownups’ lives often bewilder their children), and gives the adult Washington the separate roles of storyteller and guide, who can look at the past with wisdom, insight, and love.
Each element of the production enfolds the audience in Washington’s intelligence and warmth. Tony Ferrieri’s beautifully designed reading room, in which the familiar New York Library table and lamp are set center stage, is evoked realistically except for stairs that hold colorful books in their risers, card catalogues that become whatever Washington needs to create a new space, and a few piles of books (Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and Langston Hughes among them) that she reads from at key moments. Ann Wrightson’s lighting comes through a breathtaking backdrop of black rectangles holding panels that gradually change color to amplify the play’s array of emotions.
Toni-Leslie James’ costume for Washington signals, once again, the script’s thoughtfulness and wit. Dressed first in a simple but classy maroon open sweater, a blouse with a small pattern, slim, dark trousers, and brown flats, Washington could be a handsome librarian. To become young Sharon, all she has to do is take off the sweater, and we see that the blouse buttons down the front and has a small ruffle—a peplum—at the bottom: this, with the trousers, creates the perfect picture of a girl whose mother makes sure she is as well-dressed as she is well-mannered. Yet with a slight slump, or the twist of a teenage head, Washington displays the moods of a rebellious, or impatient, or understandably sullen child whose fairy-tale world darkens despite Mommy’s fiercest attempts to protect her from its demons.
Washington’s story, by the end, takes us into what she calls “the flipside of a fairy tale—the dark side.” Yet like the princesses of those tales who succeed by taking matters into their own hands, she takes matters into her own hands by rendering her parents and extended family as authentic, funny, mysterious, and flawed. A memoirist can hardly bestow greater respect or deeper love.
“Feeding the Dragon” runs through February 4. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to www.hartfordstage.org.