The Reverend Al Sharpton, Angela Davis, and Sonny Carson are among the two dozen celebrities, cross section of New Yorkers, and male and female integral figures of diverse ethnicities that are given astounding portrayals by actor Michael Benjamin Washington. These simulations occur during this bedazzling revival of conceiver and writer Anna Deavere Smith’s acclaimed 1992 solo play about the Crown Heights Riots, Fires in the Mirror.
Fires in the Mirror premiered at Off-Broadway’s Public Theater in May 1992, remarkably less than a year after the events it dramatizes took place. It showcased Ms. Smith’s pioneering form of playwrighting which she created in the 1980’s. Smith conducted interviews with people on the scene and then fashioned the transcripts into a canny text. For her lauded performance she received an Obie, a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Actress and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance.
For the first 45 minutes we get a snappy series of eloquent observations on the racial divisions in the United States. Then there’s an hour-long documentary-style procedural and analysis of the play’s locus.
On the evening of August 19, 1991, a motorcade escorting the Lubavitch Hasidic Jewish leader Menachem Mendel Schneerson drove through Crown Heights, Brooklyn. One of the cars struck and killed seven-year-old Gavin Cato, the son of Guyanese immigrants. The incident exacerbated racial tensions between the black and Hasidic communities with the Jewish driver of the car being assaulted by nearby black residents and riots ensuing.
Three blocks away, 29-year-old Jewish Yankel Rosenbaum, an Australian graduate student was beset by a group of 20 black men and was beaten and stabbed. He later died in the same hospital where Gavin Cato was taken. Subsequently, African-Americans and Caribbean-Americans were joined by groups of non-resident blacks and community organizers for three days of rioting. Hundreds of New York City police officers intervened, and the situation escalated until it was defused, crippling the efficacy of David Dinkins, the city’s first black mayor.
Costume designer Dede M. Ayite clothes the athletic and animated Mr. Washington in a cool ensemble of black pants, black shoes and a white tank top. Washington achieves one intense characterization after another by donning Ms. Ayite’s smart selection of hats, differing outer garments, a white dress shirt, handling props and by utilizing his consummate histrionic skills.
Employing an assortment of accurate accents via his expressive voice, shifting physically and with precise specificity of gestures, he channels each person. Standouts during his tremendous performance are his depictions of a black high school girl who while holding a comb, strokes her imaginary hair as she chatters on with adolescent poignance and as a fiery Australian Hasidic Jewish man. Washington mines pathos and humor from the many figures, particularly when recreating several Jewish women.
These metamorphoses take place on scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado’s superior minimalist setting. The back wall and ceiling of the small stage is a mirrored configuration, reflecting the audience and Washington’s actions. The wall is alternatively replaced with panels displaying projection designer Hannah Wasileski’s luminous black and white newsreel-style imagery. This imbues the production with an historical quality as illustrative photographs of events and notable people from that era are shown. On the playing area, Mr. Maldonado places a shiny brown modern desk, a chair and black barely seen cabinets off to the sides from which clothing is produced, aiding in Washington’s numerous seamless quick changes.
Director Saheem Ali’s superb command of stagecraft is evidenced throughout the production. The furnishings are moved around for locational variety, Washington is minutely and variously positioned. The physical staging is melded with the accomplished presentational aspects for an enthralling event. Lighting designer Alan C. Edwards’ shadowy efforts evoke a blend of the past and a fantastical dimension that’s complemented by Mikaal Sulaiman’s biting sound design.
The calamity of the Crown Heights riots inspired Smith to create a profound cultural exploration through presenting a balance of varying viewpoints from pertinent individuals. This masterful incarnation of Fires in the Mirror proves it to be a timeless and substantive work of dramatic literature.
Fires in the Mirror (through December 15, 2019)
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-244-7529 or visit http://www.signaturetheatre.org
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes without an intermission