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Fires in the Mirror

Theatre Review by James Wilson - November 11, 2019

Michael Benjamin Washington
Photo by Joan Marcus
As anyone who has watched the news in the last few years knows, hate crimes have spiked, and in New York City alone the numbers are rising at alarming rates. Earlier this year, for instance, the New York Police Department reported that hate-crime complaints had increased by 83% compared with the same period in 2018. Anti-semitic hate crimes accounted for the majority of these incidents. Fires in the Mirror, Anna Deavere Smith's docudrama which explores the racial tensions that caused Brooklyn's Crown Heights riot in 1991, then, seems as timely as ever. And, as evident by the Signature Theatre's current production starring Michael Benjamin Washington, the play offers an ominously accurate reflection of the troubled times in which we now live.

When it opened in May 1992 (just ten months after the events of the play occurred), Fires in the Mirror was viewed as a searing portrait of America in crisis. In his review, Frank Rich called it "quite simply, the most compelling and sophisticated view of urban racial and class conflict, up to date to this week." Subtitled Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities, the play comprises more than two dozen monologues drawn from Smith's personal interviews with over fifty black and Jewish subjects. The focus is primarily on the events of the riot, which was instigated by the death of a black child from a car accident involving a Hasidic Jewish driver. In retaliation, Yankel Rosenbaum, a young Jewish scholar, was attacked by a group of black teens and later died from a stab wound. Five nights of rioting followed.

The individuals represented in the play are in general a diverse group, spanning the spectrum of age, race, gender and class. Some of them are familiar names, such as George C. Wolfe, Angela Davis, and Reverend Al Sharpton, but by and large, these are everyday people immortalized in history (and drama). While a few of the subjects are included to offer theoretical or academic commentary, most of the interviewees were directly involved in the confrontations, including community leaders, residents of Crown Heights, and relatives of the victims.

Particularly remarkable in the assemblage of voices is their forthrightness and willingness to say something even if it might offend. Indeed, this is not a play that settles for easy answers about racial harmony. As black Brooklyn activist Sonny Carson says, "And I'm not gonna advocate any coming together and healing of America and all that shit." In the monologue immediately following Carson's, Rabbi Shea Hecht makes a similar point. While granting that people must live harmoniously, he rejects forced coalitions. He says people need to respect each other's differences, "But that does not mean that I have to invite you to my house for dinner, because I cannot go to your home for dinner, because you're not gonna give me kosher food."

Smith, who had performed in her play originally and starred in the 1993 made-for-television, American Playhouse broadcast, has said that she is excited to see the work in someone else's hands. Directed by Saheem Ali, the Signature production exceeds expectations. Washington, without the benefit of knowing most of the subjects directly, makes each person (26 of them, to be exact) distinctive and fully realized. He is nothing short of extraordinary. With a simple prop, slight costume change (cleverly designed by Dede M. Ayite), or shift in posture, he instantly transforms himself into each character without relying on shtick or stereotypical mannerisms. Even when he assumes the persona of a well-known figure, he goes beyond mimicry to humanize the individual.

As a result, the play achieves a definitive and moving narrative arc. In the first half of the play, Benjamin succeeds in establishing a contemplative context for the riots. Characters poignantly and humorously detail what it means to be black or Jewish in the United States. In the more gripping second half, Washington portrays the contradictory and divergent viewpoints of the events leading up to the riots. His restrained performance ingeniously produces a Rashomon effect. And whatever one's own version of the truth might be, Washington's exquisite and heartbreaking performance confirms that, ultimately, this was a human tragedy.

The play is enhanced by exceptional design by Arnulfo Maldonado (scenic) and Alan C. Edwards (lighting). For a significant portion of the play, a large mirror hovers at an angle above the stage and figuratively reflects race and racial attitudes in America of 1991. These attitudes, the production seems to suggest, mirror those of 2019. In the second half of the play, the mirror ascends, and the audience is thrust back to 1991. Historical images of the riot and pictures of the individuals involved are projected on the back wall. (Hanna Wasileski designed the projections.)

When Fires in the Mirror opened in 1992, the journalistic documentary-drama appeared to be very much of its moment. Nearly thirty years later, it is a shame that objects in the mirror are closer than they appear. Smith's play is an urgent reminder of the need to address racial and religious tensions before the next conflagration erupts. Smith's follow-up play, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, is set to open next spring and will surely provoke similar comparisons. One can at least hope, though, that Michael Benjamin Washington will have the chance to breathe life into those characters as well.

Fires in the Mirror
Through December 15, 2019
Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
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