In Feeding the Dragon Sharon Washington shows us exactly who she is. A warm, sensitive, funny and adventurous woman who happens to have a spectacular tale to tell. She is a woman of some pedigree, tracing her mother’s pure New York side back to 1835 when her great grandmother, Elizabeth Henry, was born on Mulberry Street. Her father was a Gullah, and hailed from Charleston where his people had lived for over a century. Her Gramma Louise Middleton Washington got her name from the Middleton Plantation in South Carolina.
As to her own coming up, well, Washington is one of a particular tribe of people. She and her family lived in the building where her father was a custodian. A Library. Her first Library was St. Agnes (still standing) at 444 Amsterdam in the West 80’s. Through a door marked PRIVATE on the third floor, Washington passed into a slightly altered life - like a child in a fairy tale. When the library was closed she had the run of the place and read everything she could. Age appropriate was of no concern, so she read Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex... when she was 11. Or at least she carried with her long enough to impress her friends. Langston Hughes. James Baldwin. She consumed books.
Her parents had their challenges about which they seemed not to have spoken. They did everything they could to assure that Washington would get an education that would lift her up and out into the world. The Dalton School. Princeton. And now here she is paying homage to the world they created for her by telling this story.
Like a lot of us, Washington’s life was a series of smoothed over moments. Conflict was avoided even though feelings were hurt. People didn’t talk to one another again until the storm cloud had passed, and then they didn’t talk about whatever the upset was in the first place. In Washington's version of her childhood, there was no internal or emotional family struggle, no trajectory that would cause everyone some crazy moments. Not that there needs to be. Evenings spent sleeping on mattresses on the roof, and time spent braiding a grandmother’s hair while she read out loud - that sounds pretty wonderful.
Indeed it is a sweet tale, as memoirs often are. What Feeding The Dragon lacks, however, is a mission. There is no trajectory. There is no element that becomes an obstacle against which Washington pushes. No beginning, middle or resolution. There is no drama. Indeed, the few points of drama we hear about are only passing references. They are never seen, never felt. Like the time her teacher discovered the sex book sitting on Washington’s desk. Washington is certain that teacher must have called her parents. I would have loved to see her version of that call, as well as the result at home. And what about the times her mother had to go to the Dalton School and deal with the white parents? What about the drinking? What about those fights? What about that dragon? Theatre needs a narrative that keeps people on their seats. A friend referred to this as “a little trouble on every page.”
As Washington, herself, reminds us, her childhood happened in a time before the Internet, before texting and cell phones and smart phones and all those tools we use to keep in touch without actually seeing one another. This was a time of face-to-face communication. A time of "Yell-to-talk." The way you found out where your child was often meant stepping out onto the fire escape or the front steps. Surely there were some gold moments in those encounters that shaped Washington. Revelations. Explosions. Life altering moments. Yes?
Washington is an engaging performer and an excellent character actor. But the material she has written does not give her a chance to show off her many skills. Without the twists and turns, the obstacles and challenges, this becomes a ride on calm water. Neither Washington nor we get to soar the way we would like to.
(Photo by James Leynse)
What the popular press says...
"The surface of Ms. Washington’s story is far less compelling than what’s underneath, and this play doesn’t delve deep enough."
Laura Collins-Hughes for New York Times
External links to full reviews from popular press...