“The condition of the Black man in America today is part and parcel, through the devlishment that permitted Caucasian people to rob us of our humanity, and put us in the throes of slavery…” Minister Conrad Mohammed, New York minister for Louis Farrakhan
Michael Benjamin Washington inhabits 25 characters of different ages, ethnicities and genders in Anna Deavere Smith’s masterpiece. Washington’s performance is a tour de force in Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities now playing at Signature Theatre.
Originally performed in 1992, the play comes from over 100 interviews from the Jewish and African-American communities affected by the Crown Heights riots from August 19 to 21, 1991, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. Black residents turned against Orthodox Jewish Chabad residents, in an already densely populated community. Two children of Guyanese immigrants were accidentally struck by one of the cars in the motorcade of Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the leader of Chabad, a Jewish religious movement. One child died and the second was severely injured. In the wake of the fatal accident, black youths attacked several Jews on the street, seriously injuring several and fatally injuring an Orthodox Jewish student from Australia.
In Fires in the Mirror, we meet For Colored Girls playwright Ntozake Shange feeling of being separate from others but still somewhat a part of the whole. An anonymous girl talks about how racial identity is extremely important in her school and the girls act, dress, and wear their hair according to the racial groups. A jewish woman tells a humorous story of getting a young black boy from the neighborhood to turn off their radio during the Sabbath because no one in their family was allowed to. A Holocaust survivor, talks about being forced by the Nazis to load his wife and children onto a train headed for the gas chambers. Angela Davis, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, one of the founding editors of Ms. magazine and George C. Wolfe all have a voice. It feels like several mini monologues that introduce us to interesting people and their stories of life.
The it turns to Michael S. Miller who argues that the black community is extremely anti-Semitic. Al Sharpton, members of the religious and African American community of Crown Heights speak as does Normal Rosenbaum, brother of Yankel and finally Carmel Cato, Gavin’s father. The stories conflict and it is evident that the wounds have never really healed, just thinly scabbed over.
Washington, gives us each of these people simply, yet effectively. He is a masterful actor, who gives us layers of depth and emotion.
Saheem Ali directs this play almost as a dance. Accessories are used to distinguish the slight change of character and discarded into drawers, to be brought out anew. Hannah Wasileski’s projections show us the era and the people involved.
Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities: shows us just how close we are to a civil war and the dangers it holds. If only, it offered a solution.
Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities: Signature Theatre, 480 W 42nd St. until Dec. 15th.