I recently had the pleasure of seeing Anna Deveare Smith’s classic play “Fires in the Mirror” now playing at the Signature Theatre. The play centers on the infamous 1991 Crown Heights uprisings, which pitted Black American and Jewish communities against one another. For those who remember the tragic incidents, a 7-year-old Black boy named Gavin Cato was struck by a car driven by an Orthodox Rabbi’s driver and an Australian Jewish student, Yankel Rosenbaum, was subsequently stabbed during the unrest.
What makes “Fires in the Mirror” such a unique and poignant experience is because all roles are played by a sole actor. When Deveare Smith first conceived, wrote, and starred in her groundbreaking play, she captured the men and women, boys and girls, Black, Afro-Caribbean, and Jewish residents of Brooklyn with a certain specificity that transformed theatergoers each time. What makes this iteration of the play so important is the thoughtfulness and reflection Michael Benjamin Washington brings to this work.
The play stands the test of time. I know that may sound trite, but so many of the monologues could have been written just yesterday. The feelings of hurt, abandonment, guilt, misunderstanding, loss, and fear are all relevant concepts and conversations still currently circulating throughout the Black community, and more specifically, the Black community in Brooklyn.
Back to Michael Benjamin Washington. I have been a fan of his comedic chops since he stole scenes at every turn on “30 Rock” almost a decade ago. I was definitely curious to see Washington on stage, especially after reading rave reviews about his Broadway appearance last year in “Boys in the Band.” Washington approached the role with a level of tenderness and understanding I have rarely seen. With a subtle change of glasses, a scarf, a hat or even a tea cup, Washington transformed himself into a Jewish housewife, a young Haitian girl, a frustrated Black young man, a prominent Rabbi and even the Rev. Al Sharpton. He performed by himself with no intermission for one hour and fifty minutes. I will not give away too much of the play since many of you may choose to see it. However, when the play ended, I suspected the standing ovation only lasted a few minutes out of respect for Washington’s plausible exhaustion. Each bead of sweat, and every hot tear that silently rolled down his cheek was a small reminder of the anguish of communities, but also a reminder of the sheer effort and love he brought to each role he embodied.
If you are so inclined, I suggest you try to see this play before it leaves. It is showing at Manhattan’s Signature Theatre at 480 West 42nd Street and is directed by Saheem Ali. “Fires in the Mirror” is showing until Dec. 8. I suggest you don’t miss this moving piece of art.
Christina Greer, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Fordham University, the author of “Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream,” the co-host of the new podcast FAQ-NYC.