Although a prominent actor, Anna Deavere Smith is perhaps more widely recognized for verbatim theater — the strictest form of documentary theater. Overall, it’s a different kind of documentary work than that of D.A. Pennebaker, the Maysles brothers or Ken Burns or Barbara Kopple. As a stage documentarian, one can react immediately — and, in 1991, Smith did, after a series of race riots erupted in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The riots erupted after a vehicle in the motorcade of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, leader of Judaism’s Chabad Lubavitch community, struck two Guyanese immigrant children. The death of one of them — seven-year-old Gavin Cato — and the fatal stabbing, later that day, of Yankel Rosenbaum (on the pretext that a Jew deserved to die in retaliation for Cato’s death), made Fires in the Mirror an extraordinary reflection of its time.
To create Fires in the Mirror, Smith interviewed 50-odd witnesses and commentators across a broad spectrum. She edited the interviews, memorized what she’d edited and performed it all solo, including every “um,” every stammer, every chuckle, every sob, every pause to take a bit of sandwich. The piece became an instant classic, one now revived Off-Broadway by Signature Theatre Company.
That term, “documentary theater,” does imply “objective,” and as Smith covers outrages on both sides of the fiery contretemps, she indeed allows no bias. She focuses on those expressing anti-Black sentiments around Cato’s death as much as those expressing anti-Semitic sentiments around Rosenbaum’s death.
In the years since she performed Fires in the Mirror, Smith has said that she wants other actors to take it on — men as well as women. This production does just that, with Michael Benjamin Washington (last seen in the Broadway revival of Boys in the Band) and he is superb in this mountain of a challenge. The spectrum of accounts captured by Smith is long. yet Washington — directed by Saheem Ali with an eye and ear for compassion and effective pacing — charts it with beautifully disguised power. Regularly allowed time to change accessories (Dede M. Ayite is the costumer), Washington shifts accents smoothly. His Brooklyn Jewish accents, and their subtle alterations from men to women, in and out of the Orthodox sections, is particularly commendable (Dawn-Elin Fraser is the dialect coach).
Keep in mind that having conducted those interviews, Smith could observe their behaviors up close, putting her in the helpful position of knowing how to portray them as characters. Though presumably coached by Smith, Washington was not, making his performance all the more extraordinary.
Of all the interviewees quoted in Fires in the Mirror, only two Rev. Al Sharpton, and Letty Cottin Pogrebin, the author, appear twice. Some of the others include Ntozake Shange, whose theatrical “choreopoem,” for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, is now in revival at the Public Theater. She talks about identity as a general issue before Smith gets to the Crown Heights conflagration proper. In recognizing the differences between individuals and groups, Shange asserts, “I am part of my surroundings, and I become separate from them.” Smith finishes with Gavin Cato’s father, Carmel, who mourns, “I am one of the special. There is no way [the Jewish people] can overpower me.”
In between, there’s Rabbi Joseph Spielman, who represents the Lubavitch community and remembered the chaos of the accident: “At that time there was a lot of screaming and shouting and it was a mixed crowd, Hasidic and Afro-Americans. The police said, ‘Rabbi, get your people out of here.’ I told them to leave and I left.” Sharpton said “The driver [of the out-of-control vehicle] left the country. No one even said, ‘Why would he run if he did no wrong?’” Norman Rosenbaum, Yankel’s brother living in Australia, said: “At first I was all cool, calm and collected. I then started asking questions like ‘Who told you?,’ ‘How do you know?,’ ‘Are you sure?'”
It all makes Smith’s program note both thoughtful and urgent:
Everyone involved in this enterprise is being asked to work not from an assumption that the seeds of human experience live inside of them, but from a proposal that the reach towards another human — knowing full well that there will always be distances between us — is a potent reach. Perhaps these artistic reaches will suggest that stretching with a full heart towards that which is different from ourselves is one small antidote to the popularity of tribalism.
Smith and Signature know what they’re doing by bringing back Fires in the Mirror as 2019 choppily transitions into 2020. The lessons that Smith’s stage documentary teaches are as needed as ever, quite possibly more so. This revival stands as an exhilarating example of the public service that theater is forever capable of providing.