Monday, November 18, 2019

Fires in the Mirror

Midway through Fires in the Mirror, Anna Deavere Smith's moving and generous one-person show about the 1991 Crown Heights riots, Robert Sherman, the head of the City of New York's Increase the Peace initiative, talks about bias. "I think you know the Eskimos have 70 words for snow," he notes. "We probably have 70 different kinds of bias, prejudice, racism, and discrimination, but it's not in our mind-set to be clear about it. So I think that we have sort of a lousy language on the subject and that is a reflection of our unwillingness to deal with it honestly and to sort it out." In some ways, Sherman--one of many real people Smith interviewed and worked into Fires, which premiered at the Public in 1992--nails the landing: bias underscores the monologues of almost every person Smith has worked into the show. But then again, there's so much more to the piece, and to the people in it, than the ways bias shapes our thinking. And Fires in the Mirror would be a far weaker piece if Smith had allowed her own biases to influence the ways the many characters in the piece consciously or unconsciously air theirs.

A mild stir went up at the initial announcement that Smith would not be performing her celebrated play this time around, but then, Fires in the Mirror very much deserves to live on whether she's involved or not. Michael Benjamin Washington holds his own in the Signature production, moving easily between characters with the lighting of a cigarette, the donning of a headscarf or hat, or the careful preparation of a cup of tea. Like Smith in the original production, Washington disappears into each of the many people he portrays, all the while keeping his own opinions off the table. Some of the people portrayed are angrier and less tolerant than others, and a few have especially strong--and not especially kind--opinions about Blacks, or Jews, or the incidents that sparked violence and rioting. But in letting them all speak for themselves--whether about the role of hair in black culture, complications that can arise during Shabbat, which cultural group has been treated most cruelly through human history, or who specifically was to blame for the violence in Crown Heights in summer 1991--Smith has created a quiet, moving, kaleidoscopic reflection on race, culture, and personal identity. While the riots at the heart of the production certainly took me back to that strange, sad summer, I found Fires to be, for the most part, curiously uplifting and even hopeful. Bias might occasionally slop over into violence and hatred, but then again, as one character muses, no matter who they are, most people want the same things: to go freely about their days; to experience more joy than pain; to live in quiet, peaceful neighborhoods; to get along with one another more often than they don't.   

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