Review | ‘Fires in the Mirror’ crackles with renewed relevance at Theater J

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For a 30-year-old play penned in the aftermath of the Crown Heights riot and first performed less than a year later, “Fires in the Mirror” crackles with renewed relevance in an uneven but intellectually invigorating production at Theater J.

Written and originally performed by Anna Deavere Smith as an empathetic alchemy of journalism and theater, the one-woman play dramatizes the simmering strains, divisions and misunderstandings that sparked three days of violence between a Brooklyn neighborhood’s Black and Jewish communities. That actress January LaVoy can revisit Smith’s rapid reflection three decades later and still speak to the moment — as tensions over disparate identities reach a boiling point in our fractured nation — is a credit to the endurance of Smith’s undertaking.

As explained by a laborious heap of opening text, beamed onstage via Bradley S. Bergeron’s vivid projections, the play explores the August 1991 riot that broke out after a Black child was killed by a car in a Rebbe’s motorcade and a Jewish scholar was fatally stabbed in retaliation. Subtitled “Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities,” “Fires in the Mirror” synthesizes 100-plus interviews conducted by Smith down to some two dozen fact-based monologues.

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For the first half of the play, most of LaVoy’s characters — the Rev. Al Sharpton, writer Letty Cottin Pogrebin and director-playwright George C. Wolfe, among them — are speaking not to the riots themselves but more obliquely to the cultural divides that stoked them. The lack of focus is intentional but ill conceived, allowing one’s mind to wander in the absence of a narrative tether. The second half of the play, with its contradictory accounts from those who witnessed the central events, proves more engaging.

LaVoy, who directs the production with outgoing Theater J artistic director Adam Immerwahr, inhabits an array of shifting personas through some dexterous dialect work and Pamela Rodríguez-Montero’s savvy costume tweaks. The performance never falters, but LaVoy shows particular range while playing the brother of the slain scholar in back-to-back vignettes — one impassioned, one crestfallen — while navigating the character’s Australian accent.

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Nephelie Andonyadis’s set, composed of gray bricks and some sparse furniture, is appropriately weathered. Tosin Olufolabi provides subtle sound design, evoking the hum of a school hallway or the buzz of a boisterous rally without distracting from LaVoy’s performance. R&B beats and other rhythms — including, cleverly, a piano version of “Maria” from “West Side Story” — augment the dizzying scene transitions, even when those get bogged down in yet more projected text.

Although there’s something inherently indulgent about these kinds of one-person plays, LaVoy’s commitment plasters over those doubts. Smith never could’ve intended it this way, but this version of “Fires in the Mirror” reflects on the past by showing how little has changed. Whatever the work’s flaws, give LaVoy and Immerwahr credit for recognizing it as an eternal flame worth fueling.

Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities, by Anna Deavere Smith. Directed by Adam Immerwahr and January LaVoy. Scenic design, Nephelie Andonyadis; costumes, Pamela Rodríguez-Montero; lighting, Max Doolittle; sound, Tosin Olufolabi; projections, Bradley S. Bergeron; props, Nicholas Battaglia. About 100 minutes. $40-$75 in person; $60 streaming. Through July 3 at the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St NW. 202-777-3210.

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