Michael Benjamin Washington in Fires in the Mirror

Review of Signature Theatre's Fires in the Mirror by Anna Deavere Smith

David Walters
David Walters

There are many interpretations of what happened. It's Crown Heights, Brooklyn and it's 1991, and it's the heat of August, and it's 8:20 on a summer night. People are on the street.

There has been tension in this urban neighborhood for some time as the Jewish community that lives side by side with the African American community has been expanding its footprint, buying up property and changing the landscape. Then it happened. The spark that lit the fuse of an explosion.

The driver of the car in the rear of the motorcade of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the head of the Lubavitch Hasidic movement, lost control killing a 7-year-old black boy playing on the sidewalk. The fires immediately spread both literally and figuratively.

I'm not going to get into the details of the Crown Heights riots because I want to put my efforts into expressing my admiration for this Signature Theatre production of Fires in the Mirror, currently running at Pershing Square Signature Center, as it takes this bit of history and lifts it to a higher plane.

In putting together this play, the playwright Anna Deavere Smith spoke to over fifty black and Jewish residents of Crown Heights shortly after the riots, assembled this piece directly from those interviews and performed it herself in 1992 lifting the genre of documentary theater. The New York Times' Frank Rich said of that production that it had the "ability to find the unexpected and unguarded in nearly each speaker." That still stands today in the strong words that are spoken landing 27 years later, the unexpected in viewpoint and the unguarded in personal truth.

Switching genders, what Ms. Smith has done in this production is given over the playing to the wonderfully mesmerizing actor Michael Benjamin Washington who brings to life the 29 characters in full force and fury. Mr. Washington surpasses capable and enters the realm of exquisite in his characterizations on both polemic sides of the rioting. His job is to not only embody but to feel the truth in the Jewish neighborhood wives, Al Sharpton, George Wolfe, Clarence Thomas, Jewish rabbis, young men and women in the neighborhood and Angela Davis. The standing ovation the night I was there was as much for Mr. Washington's compelling work as it was for the play and the production. All three deserve the ovation.

Saheem Ali's direction brought temperance and smoothness to the production allowing Mr. Washington a path to follow in his shape-shifting that provided flow to the work and helped to cement each characterization in the broader picture. His vision for the piece and what it meant at that time and what it means today carries the piece forward from being a look-back to a this-is-us-now perspective that resonates in the now.

Scenic designer Arnulfo Maldondo utilizes mirrors on stage to add a 360 degree visual to the piece. The mirrors distortions reflect back the full characters and allow movement where there is none, three dimensions where there is only two and an open stage chock full of possibility. The strong last visual of all the characters puts a final button on the evening that will haunt with its richness.

This play is not meant to find ultimate truth, but to listen to the humanity that doesn't listen beyond itself and eke out a truth applicable to our own lives, to become better than we were instead of worse. We live in a world where there is no such color as red, no such note as middle C. These are all agreed upon subjective realities or truths. The subjective truth of this production of Fires in the Mirror, and the subjective reality, is that this is a wonderful evening of theater.

(Photo by Joan Marcus)

"Nearly three decades after it was first unveiled, the panoramic view provided by Anna Deavere Smith's "Fires in the Mirror" still makes you catch your breath and shake your head in sorrow. In the Signature Theater's crystalline revival of this documentary drama about the Crown Heights race riots of 1991, its reflective surfaces seem, if anything, more acutely focused, its patterns both sharper and more damning."
Ben Brantley for New York Times

"A theatrical time capsule that feels eerily timely, Anna Deavere Smith's solo documentary play Fires in the Mirror is getting an appropriately fiery revival at the Signature... Director Saheem Ali deserves credit for eliciting this impressively fluid performance, and although there are minor missteps in this production—too much stage business, an excessively literal set—it is a stirring account of an urgent work of art."
Raven Snook for Time Out New York

"Can an Anna Deavere Smith docu-play work without, well, Anna Deavere Smith? Michael Benjamin Washington more than proves that it can in Signature Theater Company's stirring revival of Fires in the Mirror, which opened Monday night."
Thom Geier for The Wrap


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