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“Fires in the Mirror”
Photo by Joan Marcus.
“Fires in the Mirror” by Anna Deavere Smith, directed by Saheem Ali.
Signature Theatre, 480 W. 42 St., NYC
Oct. 22 until Dec. 22, 2019.
Tues. – Fri. at 7:30. Sat. at 8pm. Sundays at 2pm. Tickets start $35 at https://www.signaturetheatre.org, 212-244-7529.
In 1991 Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York erupted. Mobs, fires, violence, looting, all exacerbated by the presence of dozens of police officers, forced residents, black and white, into the safety of their homes. One Jewish woman in Anna Deavere Smith’s “Fires in the Mirror,” directed by Saheem Ali now at Signature Theatre, observes that she is afraid to leave her apartment, and she is sure that her black neighbor is also homebound with fear.
An accident and long simmering resentment incited the rage. Crown Heights housed two populations that were wary of each other: the black community and the Hasidim (ultra observant Jews). The African Americans felt that the Jews received special treatment. A Jewish driver lost control of his car and leaped the sidewalk, killing Gavin Cato, 7, whose father was steps away. Three ambulance arrived quickly, the last one Jewish, and the rumor spread that the Jewish ambulance had refused to treat the child. A day later, Yankel Rosenbaum, a Jewish student from Australia, was murdered in a knife attack. His older brother flew to New York to protest loudly on television. He became a force to be reckoned with.
So why drag up history, especially such ugly history? Anna Deavere Smith saw an opportunity to let all sides be heard, perhaps to make peace. She conducted dozens of interviews with neighborhood residents and compiled the voices into “Fires in the Mirror,” a highly evocative title that set design Arnulfo Maldonado took as his inspiration for the current revival at Signature Theatre. His many-angled mirrors reflect but they all distort. The smart set is augmented by Mikaal Sulaiman’s projections and Alan C. Edwards lighting design.
In the premiere at the Public Theatre, Smith performed and won the 1993 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show. The production catapulted her to fame and began an impressive career, including a 1996 McArthur (genius) Award).
In the current production, the versatile Michael Benjamin Washington plays the dozens of intersecting voices. The first time around, audiences were captivated by the new format and how Smith captured so many points of view. The revival is more challenging and Washington is impressive. Using a few simple costume changes – he modulates posture, gestures, voice, pace, diction, pauses – all the tools of the gifted actor. He was a black teen age girl, the enraged Reverend Al Sharpton, an orthodox woman who calls on a black neighbor to turn off a loud radio on Shabbat, the fiery Angela Davis, Rabbi Joseph Spielman of the Luabvitch community, and Sonny Carson, an activist with acute insights into his community.
The production is powerful both as theatre and as social commentary. In a future revival, I’d be interested in hearing the drama through the voices of several actors, white and black, watching the overlapping give and take of a neighborhood in crisis.
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