“Feeding the Dragon”, A Solo Show in Hartford
Once upon a time a young African-American girl grew up in New York City’s St. Agnes Public Library. Her name was Sharon Washington and she was the only child of parents who, in the early 1970s, had an apartment above the library. Her father worked as the chief custodian there and his primary job was to “feed the dragon”, Sharon’s description of how her dad kept the library’s coal furnace working day and night. Sharon had free reign at the library after hours letting her imagination run wild through its endless stacks of books. Ms. Washington’s childhood memories make up the core of “Feeding the Dragon”, her pleasant if thin solo show currently in residence at Hartford Stage.
Clad in black slacks, print blouse and sensible flats, Washington engages the audience almost immediately with her welcoming smile and open demeanor. She spins a tale of childhood that avoids overt melodrama or, for that matter, much drama at all. By all accounts, the actress had a rather idyllic upbringing. She enjoyed a spacious New York apartment that included a rooftop terrace, all the books she could ever read and an education that included both private school and college. She had two parents who loved her as well as a grandmother on site and relatives down south who, while quirky, still welcomed her for extended visits. This is all great for Ms. Washington who seems to have turned out just fine, thank you. What her play doesn’t give us, however, is a story with much forward momentum, conflict or originality.
There are hints throughout Washington’s narrative of where the story might have gone. Her father was an alcoholic but her mother protected Sharon by sending her periodically to live with relatives. Her parents remained together, though, giving the impression that the alcoholism was dealt with and not a serious drawback. But was that really true? She also wonders how it was for her mother to attend a parents’ night at her exclusive school with all the upscale white moms and dads. So why not explore that? Did she never ask her mother what it was like? That would be a scene worth recreating here. Later in the play she speculates about why, while driving down south to visit relatives, her father doesn’t want to stay long at rest stops. She thinks it’s because he was afraid of being harassed by the police or others which is probably true. But she decides to just relay that information without further exploration leaving us to wonder on our own. It’s another example of a missed opportunity in a play full of them.
As charismatic and engaging a performer as Washington is, her strong suit is not differentiating between characters. In “Feeding the Dragon” she brings little vocal or physical variety to the numerous people she attempts to imitate. The characterizations, mostly family members, are enthusiastic and loving, but also dramatically thin, somewhat generic and lacking in substance.
Scenic Designer Tony Ferrieri creates a lovely three-tiered platform of books and card catalogs (remember those?) for the actress to use and, under Maria Mileaf’s unobtrusive direction, she navigates it all very well. It is lit expressively by Ann Wrightson with invaluable original music and sound design by Lindsay Jones. Despite the engaging performance at its core and the obvious sincere effort on display, however, there still remains no urgent or compelling reason for this particular story to be told.
“Feeding the Dragon” continues at Hartford Stage through February 4, 2018. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 860.527.5151 or visit: www.hartfordstage.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.