Theater review by Raven Snook
A theatrical time capsule that feels eerily timely, Anna Deavere Smith’s solo documentary play Fires in the Mirror is getting an appropriately fiery revival at the Signature. An exploration of identity and tribalism in the wake of the 1991 Crown Heights riots, a violent three-day clash in Brooklyn between members of the Jewish and black communities, the show is a collage of verbatim interviews that Smith conducted both with everyday New Yorkers and with boldface names like activist Al Sharpton, feminist writer Letty Cottin Pogrebin and the late playwright Ntozake Shange. Since its premiere 27 years ago, the piece has been performed by the playwright herself —until now.
Using only his remarkable talent and a few key accessories, Michael Benjamin Washington conjures 25 individuals of various ages, genders, ethnic backgrounds and viewpoints. While he doesn’t possess Smith’s uncanny abilities as a mimic (her career-making performance was filmed for PBS’s American Playhouse, and can be viewed on YouTube), he imbues each person with specificity, authenticity and soul. Director Saheem Ali deserves credit for eliciting this impressively fluid performance, and although there are minor missteps in this production—too much stage business, an excessively literal set—it is a stirring rendition of an urgent work of art. Smith’s structure is meticulous: She arranges the monologues to enhance and echo each other as they reveal the personal tolls of racism, anti-Semitism, inequality and injustice. Although the vernacular has changed, we are having many of the same arguments today. Fires in the Mirror helps us hear each other.
Signature Theatre Company (Off Broadway). By Anna Deavere Smith. Directed by Saheem Ali. With Michael Benjamin Washington. Running time: 1hr 50mins. No intermission.