Thursday, November 21, 2019

117. (2019-2020): Review: FIRES IN THE MIRROR (seen November 20, 2019)

“Still Burning”

Anna Deavere Smith’s sterling career as an actress, playwright, speaker, and academic took off like a rocket when, in 1992, she conceived, wrote, and performed her remarkable one-person docudrama, Fires in the Mirror. (She followed in 1994 with the similarly successful Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.)

The still relevant Fires in the Mirror, absent its original subtitle, Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities, is now getting a first-class revival at the Pershing Square Signature Center’s Linney Courtyard Theatre. Surprisingly, what was once a one-woman play is now a one-man play in the supple, chameleon-like hands of Michael Benjamin Washington (The Boys in the Band). 
Michael Benjamin Washington. All photos: Joan Marcus.
Smith, awarded the National Humanities Medal by Pres. Obama in 2013, created a new type of documentary theatre with Fires in the Mirror. In it, she wove together verbatim passages recorded in interviews with multiple figures directly and indirectly involved with the riots that erupted in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights community in 1991. The spark that lit the fires of racial rage and anti-Semitic conflict was an accident in which a car carrying the Lubavitcher Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson ran a red light, causing the driver to lose control and fatally hit an eight-year-old black boy, Gavin Cato.
The circumstances surrounding and following the accident bore great social and political consequences. Among the ingredients simmering in the dangerous brew were the reactions of the responding ambulances, secular and religious; the violent behavior of the crowd at the site; the fate of the never-punished driver, the retaliatory murder of a young, Australian, rabbinical scholar; the actions of the police; and the participation by civil rights, religious, and political leaders in the inflammatory discourse that ensued. 
Smith’s interviewees, who ranged across the social, religious, and political spectrum, appear within a structure divided into seven sections: Identity, Mirrors, Hair, Race, Rhythm, Seven Verses, and, most extensively, Crown Heights, Brooklyn August 1991. Within these, we meet 26 people, each with their own subtitled segment, ranging from, for example, playwright Ntzoke Shange and an anonymous Lubavitcher woman in Identity, to physicist Aron M. Bernstein in Mirrors, to a black, teenage girl and the Rev. Al Sharpton in Hair, to activist Angela Davis in Race, to rapper Monique “Mo” Matthews in Rhythm, to Minister Conrad Mohammed and Jewish author Letty Cottin Pogrebin in Seven Verses, to 15 individuals, culminating with Carmel Cato, Gavin’s father, in the final section.
Many of these people are little known today, others like Sharpton remain in the public eye. Numerous others are mentioned but don’t appear (other than in the many video projections designed by Hannah Wasileski), their identities clarified in the helpful listing provided in the program insert, which also carries notes by Smith and a timeline of events. 
Smith’s sequence of speakers, some with personal stories (the Holocaust is referenced), cover the situation from multiple perspectives, expressing the concerns of both the black and Jewish communities of Crown Heights, and those of committed, outside observers from varying backgrounds. This exposes us to a wide assortment of feelings and philosophies, anecdotes and assessments, history and hysteria. Smith’s extraordinary achievement is to present her subjects objectively, in their own words, and, as closely as possible, to their own personas. 
I was so impressed by her original performance that, when it appeared later on public television, I taped it and showed it to my students on multiple occasions. It seemed unlikely that anyone else would ever match her ability to so accurately express the voice, accent, personality, and manner of so many disparate people, black and white. With Smith’s performance still vivid in my mind, I was skeptical that Washington could match it. But, under Saheem Ali’s pinpoint direction, he comes as close as humanly possible.

Washington, much darker-skinned than Smith, transforms himself into a thoroughly convincing, Brooklyn-accented Lubavitcher woman, headscarf and all, just as he replicates the rhetorical precision and physical mannerisms of Louis Farrakhan supporter, Conrad Mohammed. For the latter, he does so down to the tapping of sugar packets on a table, one of those utterly unforgettable bits of characterization Smith created in the original.
Using minimal props and costume elements (the latter, added to a white shirt and black pants, designed by Dede M. Ayite), Washington moves about, under Alan C. Edwards’s sensitive lighting, on Arnulfo Maldonado’s simple set backed by a mirrored wall on which words and images are projected. Mikaal Sulaiman’s creative sound design adds immeasurably to the experience. 
Like Smith, his command of the multiplicity of accents is awesome but, interestingly, he falls short in capturing the most recognizable individual in her dramatis personae, Al Sharpton. Smith came much closer to nailing Sharpton’s unique, boisterous delivery than does Washington. On the other hand, his presentation of Carmel Cato talking about his son, as the tears stream down his cheeks, is incomparably moving. 
No theatre season goes by without an assortment of solo plays, some distinguished, some quickly extinguished. But few have had the political and social impact of Fires in the Mirror. Audiences today may not recall either the circumstances of what happened or those who took part in them, but its themes continue to burn in our racially and ethnically diverse society, where neighbors continue to struggle with the imperative to live and let live.

Pershing Square Signature Center
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through December 8