Fires in the Mirror

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Photo: Joan Marcus Review
While the literal mirror on the Linney Theater stage is set to reflect the audience watching the Signature Theatre’s revival of Anna Deavere Smtih’s docu-play, “Fires in the Mirror,” it would be easy enough to suspect that, metaphorically, we should be prepared to do little more than peer into a rear-view mirror. Be prepared for another experience entirely!

While Smith’s extraordinary work is about two related 1991 incidents in Crown Heights, Brooklyn – an auto accident which led to the death of two unrelated young men, one black and one Jewish -- “Fires” turns out to be blazingly relevant today. The nearly two-hour piece not only explores the still-timely concepts of identity, racism and tribalism, but how, to quote Smith herself, “the reach towards another human – knowing full well that there will always be distances between us – is a potent reach.”

Mind you, Smith’s words come from her program notes, not from her mouth on the stage. And that’s because for the first time in this play’s long history, Smith is not starring in the production. Instead, the Herculean task of portraying and sharing the actual words of 26 real people has been handed over Michael Benjamin Washington (“The Boys in the Band”), who delivers a tour-de-force performance under Saheem Ali’s mostly invisible direction.

While the seemingly endless array of words does not always roll off his tongue trippingly – Washington has had a lot less time to live with them than Smith – it barely matters. The limber yet commanding actor easily proves to be a more-than-worthy successor to Smith, changing accents and gestures as easily as he doffs or dons one of Dede Ayite’s small costume changes as he moves around Arnulfo Maldonado’s almost-bare stage. (A table and a small cabinet, which contains a few props, comprise the entire set.)

More importantly, he completely inhabits the personae of everyone from the Reverend Al Sharpton, Angela Davis and George C. Wolfe to the basically unknown and sometimes anonymous residents of Crown Heights, without ever resorting to cheap imitation – or, more importantly, expressing any judgment about them.

Indeed, Smith’s genius in this play (and similar works) has always been in letting these people’s words speak for themselves. Admittedly, early on, we’re not always sure what they have to do with the story she’s ostensibly telling, and some of the earliest sections feel more than a bit abstract. Ultimately, though, we understand their purpose: To give us background about how blacks feel about whites, Jews or each other (and vice versa) -- and, sadly, how these feelings haven’t changed as much in 28 years as one might have hoped.

Still, we’re most likely to fully engage with the evening’s second half, where the personal and political seamlessly meld together as Smith’s speakers are more directly involved with that horrible night and its equally devastating aftermath. Here, Washington fearlessly, convincingly, often heartbreakingly gives voice to Carmel Cato, the distraught father of the 7-year-old by crushed by the car; Norman Rosenbaum, the brother of the Australian scholar who was fatally stabbed, for no reason other than his religion, by an angry African-American youth; and Sonny Carson, the controversial activist who was accused by some of stirring up the hatred of the local Jews by the black community – which may have been little more than a fire down below that was simply ready to burn out of control.

Indeed, Mr. Cato gets the play’s final words in a monologue accurately called “Lingering,” because this horrible incident remains with all of us who remember it to this day -- whether or not it’s being presented right in front of us as if it just happened.
By Brian Scott Lipton

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Michael Benjamin Washington

Open/Close Dates
Opening 11/11/2019
Closing 12/21/2019

Theatre Info
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036