Friday, November 29, 2019

Fires in the Mirror

Anna Deavere Smith’s selection of the monologue as the mode of disquisition in Fires In the Mirror, her dramatic work about the Crown Heights riots of l991, currently playing at the Signature Theatre, is ultimately the most powerful and humanizing element of her project. The decision to employ the monologue is not surprising since Smith has created a reputation around this art form, in which she's usually the performer in a documentary style termed “verbatim theatre.” In this case Michael Benjamin Washington brilliantly interprets all the parts (though Smith herself performed the role in the original l992 production) which are real testaments of everyone from the playwright Ntozake Shange and George C. Wolfe director of the Shakespeare Festival fulminating generally on “Identity" to the Reverand Al Sharpton on “Hair” and Angela Davis on “Race.” It’s at first a bit reminiscent of Studs Terkel’s oral history. When it turns to the actual historical event in which the unlicensed driver of a Hasidic vehicle, one of the cars in Grand Rebbe Menachem M. Schneerson’s motorcade mowed down and killed a 7 year old black child, Gavin Cato and angry mobs retaliated by murdering a 29 year old Australian Jewish scholar,Yankel Rosenbaum, it displays both synchronicity and violence of Picasso’s “Guernica.” Having a black man playing the characters like the activist Sonny Carson or Minister Conrad Mohammed, New York minister for the Honorable Louis Farrakhan, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, one the founders of Ms., Norman Rosenbaum, the brother of the murdered scholar or the Luvavicher Rabbi Shea Hecht is like one of those biblical tableaux of hands reaching towards God. What’s equally powerful is the mixed audience of people like the one at a recent performance responding to this one character whose identity is both labile and as volatile as a nuclear reactor on the verge of meltdown. As you watch and try to weigh which is the most painful or touching of the speeches, you wonder how in fact the playwright is going to wind up the show. Who will get the last laugh as it were? For, at the end of the day, it’s apparent total equanimity is perhaps not the goal or the point and that there are many subliminal and not so subliminal messages. It’s a little like the collective unconscious of society dealt with in a form of esthetic marriage counselling. In a climate where the guardians of political correctitude mitigate against the portrayal of blacks playing whites or men playing women, Fires in the Mirror opens all manner of possibilities. Still, the play is seamless and sui generis and not some sort of cookie cutter that can be applied to all conflict. It’s power lies in the fact that it's a work of art and not a polemic and that, no matter how raw the wounds, art itself, through the act of mirroring (mirrors are an important part of the set), provides one alternative to suffering humanity.

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