For library lovers and assorted bibliophiles, the set of Sharon Washington’s solo show, “Feeding the Dragon,” at the Cherry Lane Theater, is a geeky pleasure — long, neat rows of colorful books; card catalogs along the edges; big multi-paned windows above gleaming hardwood floors. To anyone who feels most at home surrounded by things to read, it feels like an invitation: Want to hear a story? Yes, please.
Ms. Washington (“Dot,” “The Scottsboro Boys”) dips into her family’s past to tell what is a children’s story, really, which comes as a surprise. Framed as a fairy tale, it’s a fond and fractured memoir of the girlhood years she spent living, with her parents and grandmother, in a three-bedroom apartment “on the top floor inside the St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library,” on the Upper West Side.
“A typical American family,” Ms. Washington says. “Living in a not-so-typical place.”
There is enchantment built into that premise, as if they were a family of lighthouse keepers, or had license to roam a museum after dark. When you factor in New York real estate envy (their living room was big enough for a baby grand piano, bought secondhand), the library apartment takes on an even more magical shimmer.
But for Ms. Washington’s father, George, it was hardly a glamorous life. From 1969 to 1973, when the family moved to a less romantic branch, he took care of that library, polishing the floors and shoveling coal into the basement furnace — feeding the dragon, as young Sharon thought of it, her imagination stoked by books.
His grim humor, as a black man given to comically quoting a slave scene from “Gone With the Wind” (“Quittin’ time. Quittin’ time!”), is the first hint, early on, of Ms. Washington’s ambition for the piece, directed by Maria Mileaf for Primary Stages. At its most affecting, it’s a memoir of Ms. Washington’s parents’ perseverance and muted pain in a culture warped by racism.