When My Sleeping Dragon Woke – Review by Bonnie Goldberg

Actor and writer Sharon Washington may have had what many would consider a fairy tale childhood: she and her family lived in three different New York City libraries as their home. Her father got the job of custodian, stoking the huge coal fire to keep the building warm. From the age of three or four, Sharon, thanks to a love of literature from her grandmother, had access to any book on the premises once the front door was closed to the public. Of course, books became magical creatures and her life took a fanciful turn.

Even in a fairy tale life, however, there is no guarantee of happily ever after. A little girl has to beware of monsters lurking around every corner, If she wants to stay safe. For Sharon Washington, growing up in a New York apartment tucked in the top if a public library had the potential to be a fantasy come true, but as in all tales of imagination, one must constantly be on guard for the unexpected. It was only much later, when Sharon was urged by fellow friends in the theater to write about those years that she realized, sadly, that there were dragons hiding among the treasures.

In 1998 Hartford Stage created a fanciful set for Sharon Washington to share her unique childhood in “Feeding the Dragon,” a story she lived, wrote about and performed in an engaging one woman show. In telling her story, Ms. Washington took on the personas of almost two dozen personalities who peopled her world, who made it so dramatic and real. Not the least of which was her father, the flawed man who literally and figuratively fed the dragon, the giant furnace in which he stuffed coal to keep the mammoth building warm and safe. His addiction to alcohol often made him the scary monster in her autobiographical tale.

Living in a library had some distinct advantages for her: while the furnace devoured coal, she devoured books. Her love of learning was encouraged by her love of the written word. She traveled many times a day and night up the five long marble flights to her tower, a fairy tale world that was strictly her own. Her view of the stars out the top windows was remarkable, as was the freedom of journeying through the stacks of books below. She often felt like a king’s daughter, until the demons arrived unannounced.

When those demons descended and forced her away from her beloved childhood playground, we witnessed a frightened little girl facing a real world of racial issues and injustice. Sharon Washington was revelatory in both milieus, always charming and lyrical, sincere and honest in her portrayal of her innermost secrets. Her storytelling was personal and passionate.

Now Westport Country Playhouse is welcoming you on Friday, June 14 at 7 p.m. to another version of her tale, ”When My Sleeping Dragon Woke,” a film that reveals the flip side of her family life , more like a Grimm fairy tale, that was 85% wonderful and 15% sprinkled with darkness, when her father drank. At those times, she and her mother and family friends from the church found themselves using heavy metal shovels to feed the furnace. In those moments, her father’s demons won. The film will be followed by a Q and A conversation with Ms. Washington and her husband and director/producer Chuck Schultz. .

As an only child with older parents, she loved to create characters from the books she devoured, being an accomplished storyteller with a good ear for voices, an actor who loved literature. In doing research on her mother’s family’s history, she discovered an event in 1917 that she is now researching for a new play with ten characters, about black women on Broadway. She loves research and, even though she is a little overwhelmed, is anxious to get started writing. She terms it “going down a new rabbit hole,” grounding her words in fact with a fictionalized lens of reflections. A Princeton Library Fellowship and a three week residency from MacDowell to write are exciting opportunities for her right now.

For tickets ($25), call Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport, route one at 203-227-4177 or online atwestportplayhouse.org.

Come be enchanted by Sharon Washington’s documentary tale and help her squeeze a nugget of shiny black coal so hard she is sure she will create a diamond. She, herself, is the diamond she creates.