Sharon Washington DRA ’88 has the stage presence and poise of a ballet dancer. She gesticulates crisply with the most articulate pair of hands you’ve ever seen. She also plays a very intimidating, forceful editor in the Long Wharf’s production of Tracey Scott Wilson’s “The Story.”
Washington’s character, Pat, is driven by her desire to promote a media-positive image of the African American community. Pat takes a no-nonsense approach to fledgling reporter Yvonne’s editorializing and condescension of the black community. Yvonne is ultimately driven to fabricating a story about a black female gang to advance herself in the paper’s hierarchy. As Yvonne trips and stumbles over her web of lies, Washington’s Pat remains steely and determined as ever to not let Yvonne’s downfall crush “Outlook,” the black news desk.
The problem is that Washington endows her character with such realistic resolution and force that this reporter was just a little bit intimidated to interview the Drama School graduate over lunch. Fortunately, however, Washington proved to be incredibly warm, friendly and open — the “good editor” counterpart to the domin-editrix that she played onstage. As “The Story” posits, there’s always two (or more) sides to every reality.
Washington herself is no stranger to the politics of media representation. Her path to the stage almost took a detour to the Foreign Service sector. As an undergraduate at Dartmouth, Washington was a Government major. “I didn’t want to major in drama, because I thought ‘there isn’t any money in that,'” she said. Throughout her four years there, she continued to be very active in the theater extracurricularly. Upon graduation, however, as she was prepping for her Foreign Service exams, she realized “if I don’t do [theater] now, I may never get a chance to.” Drawing upon Dartmouth networking connections, she scored a job with Barry Grove, the executive producer of the Manhattan Theater Club (MTC). After three years at the MTC learning about the administrative side of the theater business, Washington decided to apply to the Yale Drama School.
“I don’t know what made me think I could get in,” she said, laughing.
Washington calls the experience at the Drama School “three of the most wonderful years spent really learning my craft.” She credits the Drama School with helping her find an acting technique that worked specifically for her. She also spoke of the incredible amount of work required from her and the other students: “We learned how to work, and why to work … I will never work that much again in my life!
Her dedicated work ethic was put to good use in the crunched rehearsal period for “The Story.” The show, which traveled to New Haven after a favorable run off-Broadway at The Public Theater, gained four new principal cast members, retaining only the original ensemble. The show was allotted a two-and-a-half week rehearsal period instead of the usual four. For Washington, however, the experience was completely rewarding and worthwhile.
“I think theater is one of the last forms of art where you can confront issues that society hesitates to address — things that are taboo, like sex, death, and racism,” she said. “I love film and TV, but to me, you just watch it to escape. With theater, the conversation continues after the show ends. The actors become part of the experience — we’re all in the same space together [as the audience,] we can throw stuff out there and sense if the audience is there; if they are, we get it back.”
While Washington doesn’t consider herself to be exclusively a politically-minded actor, she feels very strongly about the importance of theater in society as a catalyst for discussion. She cited a favorite role in Cheryl West’s “Before It Hits Home,” a drama written in the early 90’s about AIDS in the black community. “It draws you in,” Washington said. “You think, ‘This could be my family.”
Washington is married to a documentary filmmaker based in New York. After finishing the run of another play in Pittsburgh, she hadn’t intended to pick up another show, hoping to spend time with her husband. When Wilson’s script fell into her hands, however, she knew immediately that the character of Pat was a role that struck her. She was hesitant to leave her husband again for another long stretch of time, though.
“I took my husband to see ‘The Story,’ which was then playing at The Public Theatre. Not even before the show was halfway over, he leaned over to me and said, ‘You have to do this!'”
Washington’s husband is currently filming a documentary about Washington’s Drama School classmate, actor Sean Cullen DRA ’89 and his dream of forming an American National Theatre, a project that Washington herself feels strongly about. “[Cullen] almost got an art space in the rebuilding project at Ground Zero. But while his idea wasn’t selected, his dream is still alive. There are so many great shows going on around the country regionally — in Chicago, New Mexico, Florida — but no one ever gets to see them, because the shows never make it to New York! Or, if it does, the original cast is bypassed in favor of bringing in a star, or New York actors. [Cullen’s] idea is to bring in the original casts. The regions are really where new work is getting done, because people are afraid to bring shows to Broadway, because it’s getting too expensive.”
For those Yalies with their eye on the big stage, Washington said, “This is going to sound so corny, but you have to follow your heart. I used to tell students when I held workshops or visited classes, ‘Is there anything else you can possibly do in the world that could make you happy — do it. This business is crazy. There are more downs than ups, you are traveling away from your family a lot of the time, sometimes you are lucky to even have the opportunity to be traveling and to have work. If, after thinking about all of this, you still have to do it, you will find a way to do it. It’s a lifelong commitment.”
Washington herself took a six-month hiatus from acting to determine if the theater business was still what she wanted to pursue as she got older. “I didn’t want to be one of those old, bitter actresses in 20 years or so. I realized that I’d never done anything else — was there anything else I could do? I told myself, ‘I have a Dartmouth diploma; of course I can do something else!'” she said.
Washington worked with a corporate training company coaching others on communication skills.
“After three months, I realized that this wasn’t the same rush, the same joy. But I made myself stick out the six months to prove to myself that I could do it,” she said. “I came back [to theater] with a renewed sense that this is what I was made to do.”
And Washington was certainly “made to do” it quite well. This past summer she had the chance to cross one of her dream roles off her list — Lady Anne in a production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” In the distant future, she “would love” to work with the American National Theater, if and when it is formed. While she doesn’t have any projects lined up after “The Story” closes, this hard-working, fast-paced Drama School graduate is looking forward to being back with her husband in New York and to taking a well-earned rest.