By Anna Deavere Smith; Directed by Saheem Ali
Off Broadway, Solo Show Revival
Runs through 12.15.19
Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
by Eleanor J. Bader on 11.10.19
Michael Benjamin Washington in Fires in the Mirror. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: A riveting revival of a still-relevant 1992 play addresses how misconceptions about race, class, and culture can fester and erupt.
There are no Proud Boys screaming “Jews will not replace us” in MacArthur award-winner Anna Deavere Smith’s newly resurrected Fires in the Mirror. Nor are there references to Black Lives Matter or the dozens of unprovoked police shootings of unarmed Black people that have occurred with virtual impunity throughout the US.
Instead, the play harkens back to the immediate aftermath of the August 1991 riots that exploded following the death of a seven-year-old Guyanese-American boy named Gavin Cato in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and zeroes in on long-running tensions between the African and Caribbean Americans and Orthodox Jews who share that small, densely populated community.
By all accounts, the story involves compounded tragedies. After a motorcade driving Lubavitcher Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994) hit Cato and his cousin Angela, both city-run and Jewish volunteer ambulances arrived on the scene. What happened next rests with who one asked. Eyewitnesses in the Black community charged that Jewish medics paid no attention to the kids, choosing to focus exclusively on Schneerson and his entourage. Not surprisingly, the Rabbi gave a different account, arguing that his horrified driver immediately attempted to lift the car off the children. Either way, rage ignited and in the resultant melee, Yankel Rosenbaum, a young Talmudic scholar visiting New York from Australia, was stabbed to death by a group of Black teenagers.
It took police three days to quell the rioting that followed both deaths, but the resultant quiet left a raft of unresolved tensions looming over the borough. This provoked Smith to jump into the fray—intellectually, if not physically—and in the months after the violence, she interviewed more than 50 people from Crown Heights about their lives, dreams, and fury. The goal? To better understand how their grief over Cato and Rosenbaum's horrific demise unleashed overt resentment and hatred between area residents.
These interviews—using the actual words of those questioned—became Fires in the Mirror. Throughout, a wide array of people are heard, from the famous, to the infamous, to the regular. It’s a powerful evocation of the ways that misconceptions, misunderstandings, and prejudice can collide, and suggests that good communication can make peaceful coexistence possible.
And therein lies the play’s questionable political bent. While the production is well executed (with excellent scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado, sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman, and projection design by Hannah Wasileski), it presents dialogue as an end in itself. What’s more, the piece offers no connection between the real disparities affecting the neighborhood’s Black and Jewish residents, and offers no suggestions about how these disparities might be addressed, or better, eradicated. Perhaps it's enough for a play to point out persistent problems, but I wanted more from the speakers who were interrogated and from the playwright who wove their words together.
That said, Fires in the Mirror is both evocative and compelling, thanks in large part to Michael Benjamin Washington, who like Anna Deavere Smith in the original production, brilliantly enacts each character, from Orthodox Jewish women and men, to Black activists Al Sharpton and Herbert Daughtry, to Gavin's distraught father, Carmel Cato. Using literal mirrors to refract Washington's performance, and a huge screen to show the audience the site of the accident, the two funerals, and the subsequent rioting, Fires in the Mirror is a vivid reminder of burbling racial resentments that continue to lie beneath the surface, not just in Brooklyn, but in every nook and cranny of the US of A. So, yes, dialogue is an imperative first step. But then what?
(Fires in the Mirror plays at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, through December 15, 2019. The running time is 1 hour 50 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 2. No shows 11/21 and 11/28; added shows 11/20 and 11/27 at 2, 12/1 at 7:30, and 12/11 at 1. The matinee on 11/16 is open-captioned, the one on 11/17 is audio-described. Tickets are $35 - $65 and are available at signaturetheatre.org or by calling 212-244-7529.)
Fires in the Mirror is by Anna Deavere Smith. Directed by Saheem Ali. Scenic Design by Arnulfo Maldonado. Lighting Design by Alan C. Edwards. Costume Design by Dede M. Ayite. Sound Design by Mikaal Sulaiman. Projection Design by Hannah Wasileski. Dialect Coach is Dawn-Elin Fraser. Production Stage Manager is Alfredo Macias. Assistant Stage Manager is Fatimah Amill. Assistant Director is Gulshan Mia.
The cast is Michael Benjamin Washington.