Fires in the Mirror

by John Stoltenberg

This review first appeared in DC Metro Theater Arts.)

Anna Deavere Smith’s classic Fires in the Mirror is getting a fascinating production this weekend by a very talented ensemble of student actors at Howard University. And on two counts this iteration is very worth seeing: Some  truly outstanding performances (casting directors: take note), and a chance to appreciate (or re-appreciate) one of the finest instances of theater’s power to reconcile, through empathy enacted in live performance, across deep divisions of difference and distrust.

Smith created Fires in the Mirror as a solo theater piece in the aftermath of a horrendous clash in 1991 in Crown Heights Brooklyn between a black community and a Lubavitcher Jewish community. What incited the interethnic animus, and inflamed it into devastatingly violent confrontations, was the death of a 7-year-old black boy in a car accident, precipitated when a Hasidic rebbe’s car ran a red light, after which a group of young black men stabbed to death a 27-year-old Hasidic scholar.

Smith interviewed people on both sides of the divide, recorded their words, then edited the transcripts into a series of monologues, each of which Smith performed with a precision and range of embodied veracity unprecedented in theater at the time. I saw Smith in the original production, and I remember vividly the experience of witnessing each individual she portrayed as a real presence, each of their vocal and ideational idiosyncrasies intact. The indelible example of this singular human being bringing audiences into the lives of others who “otherize” one another has stayed with me as evidence that where there is empathy there is hope for healing. And perhaps nowhere but live theater can that evidence come so alive.

Thus it was with keen anticipation that I attended a performance of the play’s two-dozen-plus monologues doled out to an acting company of 12. And it worked very well indeed. Not always, there was some unevenness in the cast; but there was more than enough movingly intuitive acting, together with some imaginative staging ideas, to make the evening as a whole a blazing bright beacon of possibility for this town’s ongoing need for racial and ethnic rapprochment.

Director Mark Hairston has utilized an in-the-round stage in a black box to intriguing effect. Projections tell us helpfully the name of each person whose voice we are hearing. Lighting Designer Khaiya Darnell has illumined the action with an assortment of actor-operated practicals (flashlights, electric votive candles, desk and floor lamps, and such) plus strings of tiny white lights hung in the four corners of the stage—all of which makes for some wonderfully surprising images. Set Designer Niara Nyabingi has provided actors with a bunch of big white cubes that become by turns a runway, a chair, a bench, a shrine, and more. Costume Designer Marci Rodgers has accented the cast’s basic-black wardrobe with some character-revealing details. And Sound Designer Kemai Ballard has inserted an array of music tracks that resonate not only with the theme of the play but with both communities’ cultures. (I especially liked a rap routine and an interlude when the cast dances to Michael Jackson’s “Black or White,” which was released the same year as the collision in Crown Heights.)

The core of the show is of course the corps of actors, all of whom demonstrated strong voices and stage presence.  Evidently well directed by Hairston and Dialect Coach Yasmin Thomas, each of them made remarkable and rewarding personal journeys inside characters both like and unlike themselves: Mericus Adams, Birgundi Baker, Devonne Bowman, Martece Caudle, Dana Jai Coleman, Briana Ellis-Gibbs, Kearston Hawkins-Johnson, Z. Jones, Shanzah Khan, Briana Lott, Alexcia Thompson, and Naim-Iman Vann.

The opening night audience at Howard was clearly connecting with this show. There were moments when the response echoed that of congregants in church. I daresay audiences more familiar with religious referents in the fare at Theater J will find much to admire here as well.

Running Time: About 95 minutes with no intermission.

Fires in the Mirror plays through February 15, 2015 in the Al Freeman, Jr. Environmental Theatre Space (inside the Fine Arts Building) at Howard University – 2455 6th St NW, Washington DC 20059. Tickets may be purchased at the Ira Aldridge Theater Box Office, by calling (202) 806-7700, or online. Additional information can be obtained by calling (202) 806-7050.