Mention any show in her long stage resume, and Sharon Washington instantly has a story to tell.
She recalls “Digging Eleven,” the Kia Corthron drama she appeared in at Hartford Stage in 1999, as “one of the first plays where I had to eat onstage. I had to time my lines so I wouldn’t be chewing.”
It was while she was working on a production of Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” at New York’s Public Theater — directed by JoAnne Akalaitis, with an original Philip Glass score, she elaborates — that a backstage discussion with a fellow actor, Wendell Pierce, led her to considering telling one of her own stories onstage.
“He was like, ‘What?! You have to write that down!’,” Washington recalls during a recent phone interview. “He kept on me about it, every time he saw me. The seed was planted there.”
So Washington returns to Hartford Stage with the story of her own life. “Feeding the Dragon,” which opened Jan. 11 and runs through Feb. 4, details her unique experiences growing up in a custodial apartment at a branch of the New York Public Library. It was her father’s job to keep the library’s furnace stoked at all times.
The family actually lived in three different libraries over the years, but Washington concentrated on the St. Agnes branch on 91st Street because “I don’t remember the other ones as vividly. At St. Agnes, my grandmother was there. I still had my dog. It also was one of the last furnaces in the city.”
She originally envisioned “Feeding the Dragon” as a children’s book, but “I got stuck. I kept asking myself, what is this story? Theater friends of mine said: ‘Why don’t you stand up and read it?’ Then people in the business said, ‘You know this is a play, right?’”
“Feeding the Dragon” premiered at City Theatre Company in Pittsburgh in the fall of 2016, with the same director (Maria Mileaf), scenic designer (Tony Ferrieri), lighting designer (Ann G. Wrightson) and sound designer (Lindsay Jones). It nevertheless received a full rehearsal period at Hartford Stage so that Washington could re-evaluate parts of the show before it moves to New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre, produced by Primary Stages.
“This has been a great opportunity,” she says. “What we’re doing here is what’s going to New York.”
Washington continues to act in other writers’ projects.
“I consider myself a journeyman actor. It’s been great. I worked a lot, and I worked with a lot of wonderful people.”
As a student at the Yale School of Drama in the 1980s, she originated the role of Grace in August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” at Yale Repertory Theatre and at Boston’s Huntington Theatre. She’s had dozens of TV and movie roles, including “Gotham” and “School of Rock.”
Now, she says “I want to try being the playwright.” She’s been named a Tow Foundation Playwright in Residence at New York’s Primary Stages Company. “I won’t be in my next play,” she says.
“Feeding the Dragon” is her breakthrough as a writer, but it’s also a play about reading. Has she read any good books lately?
“I have a Kindle, but I still buy hardcovers,” she says, laughing. Most actors are constant readers, she says, due to the stacks of scripts they receive. Her favorite authors include Jason Reynolds and Jacqueline Woodson and she’s looking forward to the release of the recently discovered Zora Neale Hurston manuscript “Barracoon.”
As for the theater monologists she admires, Washington mentions Lisa Kron (the “Fun Home” author who brought her solo show “2.5 Minute Ride” to Hartford Stage in 2002); Charlayne Woodard (“The Night Watcher”); Martin Moran (“The Tricky Part”); and John Leguizamo. “It’s interesting to see how they’ve handled their own stories.”
“Feeding the Dragon”’s literary themes have led to some interesting connections with the Hartford community. On Jan. 22 at 7:30 p.m. at Hartford Stage, Washington will take part in a panel discussion on “The Evolution of the Public Library: Growing and Thriving as Vital Community Hubs.” The other panelists include Hartford Public Library’s CEO Bridget Quinn-Carey and Teen Services Librarian Gabrielle Barnes. Connecticut State Librarian Kendall Wiggin will moderate the discussion .
As part of a new partnership with Hartford Stage, Hartford residents who have Hartford Public Library cards can get free two-ticket passes to “Feeding the Dragon” at all seven branches of the library. Recipients must check online at eventkeeper.com/mars/tkflex.cfm?curOrg=HPL first to see what is available, then ask for the tickets in person at the library. Once tickets are reserved, recipients then call Hartford Stage box office.
FEEDING THE DRAGON, written and performed by Sharon Washington, opens Jan. 11 and runs through Feb. 4 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., with added performances at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 14 and 28 and at 2 p.m. on Jan. 20 and 24 and Feb. 2. Tickets are $25 to $90. 860-527-5151 and hartfordstage.org.