Thursday, January 27, 2022

Review of "Fires in the Mirror"


Can a play that puts the spotlight on the Crown Heights riots of 1991 be relevant today?  Sadly, the answer is a disheartening yes.


Playwright Anna Deavere Smith interviewed over 100 people, many who were residents of the area, but also included notable commentators such as Angela Davis, the Reverend Al Sharpton and playwright Ntozake Shange, to create the one-person show, Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities.  Using 29 of her recorded transcripts, she shaped the play into a series of monologues that honestly and brutally examine the underpinnings of the riots and its aftermath.  The show is at Long Wharf Theater through February 6, 2020.


The explosive event involved the Jewish and African-American communities in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.  A simmering distrust sparked by an ill-fated, deadly automobile accident and subsequent retaliation, caused days of personal injuries, considerable property damage, and a community and city questioning how to move forward.


The actress Cloteal L. Horne embodies each character, ranging from an anonymous Lubavitcher woman to a high school African-American teenager to New York City officials, activists and clergy.  Ms. Horne is confident and self-assured as she conveys personal stories, reflections and eye-witness accounts.  The performer assumes the various identities with a quick change of costume or by simply donning a pair of glasses, a jacket or head covering.  Assorted accents and mannerisms also help with the varied transformations.  Her overall performance is fine, but a more dynamic portrayal would have elevated the production.


The show, which at just about 2 ½ hours, is a trifle long, is divided into two Acts.  The first part of the show consists of a series of monologues that provide more of a slice of life in the Jewish and African-American community of Crown Heights. The focus is on everyday people, how they live their lives within their own neighborhoods.  These stories, along with contributions from well-known personalities, are at times protracted and circuitous.  They do, however, provide background and set-up for the more riveting Act II.


The second Act centers on the events leading up to the riots, the protests and turbulence itself, and its after-effects.  Characters present differing perspectives of what unfolded.  Questions of accountability and culpability pervade each character’s recollections.  The resulting stories are both powerful and compelling.  You can almost feel the rage that took place those 30 years ago. 


Director Nicole Brewer is at her best when focusing on Ms. Horne and the stories she brings to life.  The pacing for the play is good when the monologues are short and more personal.  The production becomes somewhat tedious during the longer, more rambling addresses, especially when Ms. Horne is required to roam around the very large set.  A more intimate presentation would have better balanced the production.  In the original staging of the show, Ms. Deavere Smith performed her work on a bare stage with minimal props.  Here, the set by Scenic Designer Diggle, engulfs the entirety of the Long Wharf space.  There is a circular platform of sand with another round section filled with dirt on top.  In the background is water and a fallen tree.  Overlooking it all is a large projection screen which provides some context to the spoken words, but is more a distraction.


In a better world, a production of Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities would be an historic footnote.  But with race relations around the country still at a flashpoint, the play still remains a very important and relevant reminder that dialogue, self-examination, and action is the only way we as a country can move forward together.


Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities, playing at Long Wharf Theater in New Haven through February 6, 2022.  Masks and proof of vaccination required.

No comments: