Follow the journey from childhood in a library to a life on a stage
To many people — particularly book lovers — Sharon Washington's childhood sounded like a fairy tale.
Her father worked as a live-in custodian for a branch of the New York Public Library and her family lived in an apartment on the top floor.
“Everything seemed normal, though I did have a key to the library's front door,” she says.
After the library closed for the day, Washington could roam the library's stacks, discovering authors and stories or doing research for school assignments. “It was fantastic,” Washington says. “I was an only child and the library was my baby-sitter. My mom could let me loose downstairs. It was magic.”
But like all fairy tales, there was a dark side: an ancient coal-fired furnace that required round the clock maintenance and feeding and her father's struggle with alcoholism that periodically affected his job performance and threatened his employment.
Washington addresses both sides in “Feeding the Dragon,” her one-woman play that marks her debut as a playwright.
Set in the early 1970s, this coming-of-age story examines her journey as she explores family secrets, forgiveness and the power of language and books.
“I wanted to tell their stories and let them have a voice — to let people know we were there,” she says.
Washington was and remains a voracious reader, and she illuminates her journey with passages from the Bible and by writers such as Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois.
City Theatre audiences may remember Washington's 2003 performance in “String of Pearls.” Her professional career as an actress spans 25 years. She made her Broadway debut in “The Scottsboro Boys” and recently appeared off-Broadway at the Vineyard in the world premiere of “Dot.”
Other performances include off-Broadway roles in Billy Porter's “While I Yet Live” at Primary Stages and JC Lee's “Luce” at Lincoln Center Theater; a film appearance playing opposite Danny DeVito in “Weiner Dog” and roles in television series such as “Gotham,” “The Blacklist,” “Law & Order,” and the web series “Hustling,” for which she received a 2015 Indie Series Award for best supporting actress, drama.
When Washington began writing “Feeding the Dragon,” she intended it to be a children's story about a little girl's adventures in a library. But serious issues kept working their way into the book. She decided to turn the book into a memoir, a plan she still intends to pursue.
Several people who read drafts of the book suggested it would make a great solo piece for the stage, an idea that had not occurred to her.
After a series of workshops and readings, including one at City Theatre's Momentum festival last spring, she's happy to be performing it for an audience.
Alone on stage, she plays herself as well as her parents and her grandparents.
“I think there's a natural progression for an artist who has been doing something as long as I have,” she says. “To continue to grow, you have to challenge yourself. Using my body as a creative tool to help the playwright tell their story — it's where I feel the most alive as an artist. The difference is, this time it's my story.”
Alice Carter is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.