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Off Broadway

He Says: Signature Theatre Sets Fires in the Mirror Reflecting Back the Historic Presently

He Says: Signature Theatre Sets Fires in the Mirror Reflecting Back the Historic Presently

It’s a different time and a different actor commanding center stage, but the power of Fires in the Mirror currently playing at Signature Theatre still glows hot with potent energy reflecting back a relevance that is saddeningly current. Written by Anna Deavere Smith from interviews conducted surrounding the Crown Heights race riots of 1991, her summations of unique characters float out like burning embers, blown on the winds of hate, disappointment, and fear. “When things fall apart“, Smith says, “people speak in the most stunning, communicative, even musical ways” and in her gentle smart editing of other people’s notes, she patchwork sews a storied recreation. It’s a revelatory vantage point; a studied look at a moment in New York City’s history when the black and Hasidic communities of Brooklyn collided into one another with a destructive force, combusting into a fire so aggressively that the whole city was almost consumed by the explosion of anger and hate.

Fires in the MirrorBy Anna Deavere Smith Direct By Saheem Ali Michael Benjamin Washington
Michael Benjamin Washington. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Sadly, our nation still sits at the same intersection, somehow digging itself in deeper into the racial trenches of hate warfare. With layers upon layers piled up, the fine work of investigative theatre shines the blinding light right back into our very eyes. Standing before the reflective surfaces of dividedness is not Smith this time around, but Michael Benjamin Washington (Netflix/Broadway’s The Boys in the Band), taking over the performance reins from the earth goddess, embodying each and every one of her creations with determination and clarity.  He never fully inhabits the stage nor the characters like Smith can and did in this piece or in the very compelling Notes From the Field back in the fall of 2016, but he doesn’t falter or stumble in the big shoes she has given him. Smith found a way to morph into these others, losing her physicality in their words and presence, a skill Washington doesn’t possess to the same level. He finds shades of personality, but doesn’t manage to change the structure of self like Smith. What he does though, is confirm the importance of the piece as written, and its lasting needed place on the shelf within a world scrambling for deeper understanding of the past and the present.

Fires in the MirrorBy Anna Deavere Smith
Direct By Saheem Ali

Michael Benjamin Washington
Michael Benjamin Washington. Photo by Joan Marcus.

With the focused smooth direction of Saheem Ali (LCT’s The Rolling Stone) and through the researched and edited words supplied by Smith, Washington delivers the disjointed pieces of the puzzle with intelligence and clarity. He finds the way to tell the story of the race riots through intricate alterations, delivering the explosive collision course that was ignited after a car, driven by a Hasidic Jew, swerved and killed a young black boy at an intersection in Crown Heights. What followed was a layering of parallel universe reflections; puzzle pieces that could never all fit together into one uniform story board. The accidental murder of that child was followed by rage, finger pointing, and, tragically, a murder by a group of black men of an Australian Jewish student walking unbeknownst of the trouble brewing blocks away from the accident.

Fires in the MirrorBy Anna Deavere Smith Direct By Saheem Ali Michael Benjamin Washington
Michael Benjamin Washington. Photo by Joan Marcus.

It’s clear that Smith knows her power well and Washington understands the complexities that are fueled by historical rage and animosity. Played out on a shiny reflective structure designed by Arnulfo Maldonado (ATC’s Fireflies), with understated costuming by Dede M. Ayite (Broadway’s Slave Play), concise lighting by Alan C. Edwards (Vineyard’s Harry Clarke), and distinctive sound by Mikaal Sulaiman (Soho Rep’s Fairview), the overall effect pulls us in. The piece is well produced, delivering the detailed goods with grace and determination, but not much emotionality. Washington doesn’t hold the stage with the transformative weight of Smith, but that’s a tall order, as she is at the heart of this emotional undertaking. Fir someone who had never seen her embody these creations, Fires in the Mirror does find its way to reflect back history into the present with sly and sharp meaning.

Fires in the MirrorBy Anna Deavere Smith Direct By Saheem Ali Michael Benjamin Washington
Michael Benjamin Washington in Signature Theatre’s Fires in the Mirror. Written by Anna Deavere Smith. Directed by Saheem Ali. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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Off Broadway

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to

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