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A CurtainUp Review
Fires in the Mirror

We're all children of God, and the respect we all have to give each other under that banner. But that does not mean that I have to invite you to my house for dinner, because I cannot go to your home for dinner, because you're not gonna give me kosher food. — Rabbi Shea Hecht
Michael Benjamin Washington
Anna Deavere Smith's gripping one-person/thirty characters play - first seen Off Broadway in 1992 - is back at a time when it seems it couldn't be more timely. The rise of civil unrest with its often tragic results has surged with increasing frequency in our country since the last presidential election. That is a part of what makes this play a must-see.

In 1991, Smith assumed the voices of the thirty people - men and women - who commented and reflected on one of the most incendiary and controversial incidents in New York City history. Riots occurred and communities were at war. The interviews were prompted by the death of 7 year-old Gavin Cato who is killed by a limo in a Rebbe's motorcade in Crown Heights. Adding fuel to the fire was the retaliatory murder hours later of 29 year-old Jewish scholar from Australia Yankel Rosenbaum .

Smith was one of several playwrights who fostered the genre known as “theater of testimony.” Her unique and undeniably fine performance style added considerably to the play's positive reception. She originally played all the roles Although the event that was examined through dramatized reportage and testimony is past, its impact remains as a vivid reflection of where we were and we are now and more importantly where we still have to go.

The Signature Theatre is celebrating Smith's lauded work this season. A terrific Michael Benjamin Washington is the sole performer in this production under the direction of Saheem Ali. It remains today as a powerful a theatrical experience: depending on the ability of the story-teller to bring all the characters to life through their words. Washington, who is probably best remembered for his performance as the outrageous maid Jacob in the 2005 revival of La Cage Aux Folles , defines all the characters with the kinds of bravura touches that transcend mere reportage.

The production is more dressed up this time around. Washington does change attire deftly for each character. The play's simple setting (designer is Arnulfo Maldonado) has only a desk and chair and a few additional props. It is significantly enhanced by a raised reflecting mirror behind Washington that adds dimension. Wide screen projections designed by Hannah Wasileski provide illuminating contributions that pull you into the event.

Through Washington's scrupulous body language and precise accents of the interviewees, we hear their testimonies as initially recorded in Crown Heights. These arose out of Smith's interviews with some famous, some infamous, and some very ordinary men, women and youths from these New York City streets. This is a spellbinding gallery of ethnically, politically and socially diverse real-life characters.

Composed of the honest but also self-serving and opinionated citizens, this gallery arguably reveals more about the instinctive responses and the psychological reaction to one explosive incident than did all the newspaper coverage and subsequent editorials of the time. It was a tragic time in a racially-torn neighborhood that prompted violent confrontations between Blacks and Jews.

The posturing of political Reverend Al Sharpton; social activist Angela Davis, controversial Louis Farrakhan's Minister Conrad Mohammed; Lubavitch community spokesperson Rabbi Joseph Spielman among have their say about the events that occurred between 1991 and 1992 as portrayed by Washington.

The impassioned voices of Carmel Cato, the father of seven year-old Gavin and Norman Rosenbaum, the brother of Yankel Rosenbaum are added to the others who sometimes confirm, sometimes contradict their own truths as well as the facts as they were reported.

What the play does so credibly and without taking a socio-politicized posture is offer the listener an opportunity to hear what members of the community, including law enforcement, social activists and religious leaders had to grapple with as racial tensions erupted into a full civil outbreak. The testimonies are verbatim and as such add, either confirm or put into question what we think we already know and the truth as it actually happened.

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Fires in the Mirror
Conceived, written (originally performed) by Anna Deavere Smith
Now featuring Michael Benjamin Washington and diredirected by Saheem Ali
Scenic Design: Arnulfo Maldonado
Costume Design: Dede M. Ayite
Lighting Design: Alan C. Edwards
SoundDesign: Mikaal Sulaiman
Projection Design: Hannah Wasileski
Dialect Coach: Dawn-Elin Fraser
Production Stage Manager is Alfredo Macias
Running Time: 1 hour and 50 Minutes<
Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre The Pershing Square Signature Theatre 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues).
All tickets for the initial run of the production are $35 as part of the Signature Ticket Initiative: A Generation of Access.
From 10/22/19 Opened 11/11/19 Ends 12/08/19
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 11/10/19

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