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Theatre in Review: Fires in the Mirror (Signature Theatre)

Michael Benjamin Washington. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Signature Theatre is offering theatergoers the golden opportunity to catch up with the first of Anna Deavere Smith's theatrical hauntings -- really, the word "play" is inadequate to what she does -- in which she channels the voices of dozens of participants and observers attached to a controversial event. A solo show that contains multitudes, Fires in the Mirror is loaded with indelible presences -- but this time without Smith herself. It's a fascinating case of the shelf life of works heretofore (at least in New York) presented only by their creator.

Fires in the Mirror centers on the 1991 events that led to riots in Crown Heights, a Brooklyn neighborhood occupied, not always comfortably, by blacks and Orthodox Jews; in particular, it is home to the Hasidic Chabad-Lubavitcher community, at the time led by the late Rabbi Menachem Schneerson. On a hot August night, a car from the rabbi's motorcade lost control and killed Gavin Cato, a seven-year-old black boy. A few hours later, Yankel Rosenbaum, an Australian rabbinical student, was knifed to death by black youths, in an apparent retaliation. (Rosenbaum's murder set off years of torturous legal battling. Five years later, after three trials Lemrick Nelson was convicted of the killing, having finally confessed.) This ignited five nights of rioting that consumed the neighborhood, kept the rest of the city on edge, and became a powerful symbol of a community divided by parallel grievances and mutual suspicions.

The text of Fires in the Mirror is taken from Smith's interviews, with a solo performer -- in this case, Michael Benjamin Washington, who made a strong impression last season in the Broadway revival of The Boys in the Band -- embodying a panoply of participants, observers, and professional kibitzers. Because this is an account of urban tribes in bitter conflict, Smith works from the outside in, consulting with notable thinkers about the issues of race, religion, and identity. The late playwright Ntozake Shange defines it as "a psychic sense of place." The director George C. Wolfe notes that he was raised to think of himself as special, a feeling that quickly dispelled on contact with the larger white world; rejecting the psychological burden of being pigeonholed as a minority, says pointedly, "My blackness doesn't exist in relation to your whiteness." Angela Davis, stunned to find herself opposing the appointment of a black man to the Supreme Court, argues that new categories are needed to build a sense of community.

Moving stealthily closer to the heart of the conflict, Conrad Muhammed, a minister with the Nation of Islam, makes invidious comparisons, insisting that, emphasizing the primacy of the horror of slavery, the "Holocaust did not equal it," adding, "The Honorable Louis Farrakhan teaches us that we are the chosen of God. We are those people." Letty Cottin Pogrebin, the feminist writer and author, adds, "To get a headline, to get on the evening news, you have to attack a Jew. Otherwise, you're ignored. And it's a shame, and we all play into it." She also reads a stunning account of a relative, a European Jew named a "designated survivor" of the Holocaust by his community and charged with staying alive at all costs, in order to tell the world about the Final Solution; so successfully did he execute his orders that, passing as an Aryan, he sent his own wife and children to the gas chambers.

Having established the slippery nature of identity and the profound horrors that have shaped each of the communities involved, Smith plunges directly into the events, discovering a veritable Rashomon of competing accounts. A rabbi insists that a lie -- that a Hasidic-run ambulance staff refused to help Gavin -- was spread, in order to incite riots. An anonymous young man says, "What color is the Israeli flag? And what color are the police cars?", nodding knowingly, as if a conspiracy has been exposed. Michael S. Miller, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, describes Gavin's funeral as "a political rally" punctuated by cries of "Heil Hitler" and "Kill the Jews." Yankel Rosenbaum's brother, Norman, gives an incendiary public speech -- "When my brother was stabbed four times, each and every American was stabbed four times" -- but is far more thoughtful in an interview, recalling the disbelief with which he greeted his brother's death. Roslyn Malamud, another Lubavitcher from the neighborhood, offers a voice from the anguished center, crying out, "Jewish people do not drive vans into seven-year-old boys. You want to know something? Black people do not drive vans into seven-year-old boys. Hispanic people don't drive vans into seven-year-old boys. It's just not done."

It's a web of grievance, rage, and fear from members of two races, both traumatized by history and finding in this tragedy a way of venting years -- centuries, really -- of accumulated furies and frustrations. In listening to them, intently and without judgment, Smith lays bare one aspect of the tribal thinking that continues to divide Americans across class, race, and ethnic lines. At first, it's a bit disorienting to see Washington stepping into a piece so defined by its creator, but this is quickly dispelled. In performing this piece, only a tour de force will do and the actor puts his considerable technical skills to work, quickly and efficiently sketching in everyone from a Lubavitcher housewife (in a very funny anecdote about the perils of managing electronic equipment on the Sabbath) to various community organizers, politicians, and onlookers. He is an accomplished mimic -- nailing well-known personalities like Wolfe and the Reverend Al Sharpton -- but he digs deeper, finding something of each person's essence, in a coolly appraising look, a conspiratorial smile, or a fierce burst of anger. His is not a showy, distracting display of technique, but a diligent excavation of souls.

This is especially welcome because, seen in the rear-view mirror, Fires in the Mirror is a work of considerable breadth but less depth, at least in relation to Smith's later pieces. Over the years, Smith has refined her technique, letting her subjects bare themselves at length, finding in the cadences of their speech -- even in hesitations and pauses -- a thousand little revelatory details. Here, each character makes his or her point and moves on quickly, with the effect that the text sometimes feels like a symphonic collection of sound bites.

Nevertheless, Smith leaves one with plenty to think about and Washington, flawlessly directed by Saheem Ali, swiftly morphs from one persona to another, arriving at the quietly stunning account of Gavin's father, defiant in grief and firm in his belief that "the Jewish people, they are very high up....they runnin' the whole show." In its consideration of a conflict nearly three decades old, it couldn't be more relevant to today's America.

Adding immeasurably to the effect of the production is the creative production design. Arnulfo Maldonado's set makes highly effective use of twin mirrors, offering multiple views of Washington and providing a surface for Hannah Wasileski's unsettlingly beautiful projections, which render black-and-white photos of the riots, many of them smeared as if viewed through the fog of memory. With two enormous reflective surfaces onstage, the lighting designer, Alan C. Edwards, has his work cut out for him; he responds with gorgeous sidelight that carves Washington out of the darkness. Dede M. Ayite's elegant costume design uses simple details -- a medallion for Sharpton, for example -- to indicate each speaker. Mikaal Sulaiman's sound design includes ambient effects such as angry crowds, along with the effective use of reverb during Norman Rosenbaum's funeral oration for his brother.

The headline news here is that Smith's works can stand alone, if you have a fine enough actor to stand in for the author. Seeing Fires in the Mirror reminds one what a gorgeous, disturbing babel she can create with her unparalleled skills at listening to others. It makes one eager to revisit such later works as Twilight: Los Angeles: 1992 -- especially if Michael Benjamin Washington is available. -- David Barbour

(3 December 2019)

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