Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Fires in The Mirror"

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entire contents copyright 1997 by Larry Stark

"Fires in The Mirror"

Crown Heights, Brooklyn
And Other Identities

by Anna Deavere Smith
Directed by Valerie Hilton

Musical Scores and Performance by KOBI

Visual Effects Designed by Jennifer Hilton
Lighting Designed by Robb Macomber
Sound Designed by Michael Siering
Special Sound Consultants Al Needham & Larry Burnham, WESX
Stage Manager Thaya Brook

Rose Carlson
Stephen Cooper
Yasmin Dixon
Tina Gaffney
Luis Rodriguez

WHARF RAT PRODUCTIONS gives a portion of the gate receipts to local social-help organizations --- in this case STRONGEST LINK AIDS SERVICES INC. --- so it's not unusual for them to pick an innovative and socially-aware play like Anna Deavere Smith's "Fires in The Mirror". What was unusual was that their Artistic Director Laney Roberts worked her money-job and couldn't see it opening night. Pity, too; she missed a good one.

This is not exactly a play, but a series of concise quotes from eye-witnesses and commentators about Black versus Hassid riots following the death of a Black child in an auto accident and the revenge murder of a randomly chosen Jew. The mosaic of monologs circles slowly around the generalities of racial and religious bias, outlining the powder-keg, then pouncing into the center of the explosion that tore Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood apart. Initially the researcher/editor/author played all parts.

In this production Director Valerie Hilton doled out twenty-four tight character parts to five actors --- two Black, three White; two men, three women --- with no concession to external details whatever. Black women play White men and vice versa, but never always. And the parts rove from Reverend Al Sharpton and Rabbi Joseph Spielman to Angela Davis and, eventually, to Carmel Cato the greaving father of the boy whose death started everything.

Hilton keeps most of her cast onstage and in character while Robb Macomber's lights pick out first one, then another on the three ascending levels of the set. Each one speaks as if engaging the audience, attempting to get across some point as they see it. In the first act most of these are general, abstract, occasionally academic. Those in the second are direct, personal, involved. Every one feels like a sharply-etched reflection in a shard of shattered mirror.

There are no stars here, nor any starring roles, and though there's no actual "dialog" there is a feeling of ensemble. Tina Gaffney explicates the often laughably extreme Hassidic determination to do No Work Whatever on the sabbath, then explicates the passionate oddities of Rap music as Monique "Big Mo" Matthews. Louis Rodriguez flips from a Haitian high-school girl talking hair-fashions to an eye-witness to the initial confrontation. Stephen Cooper is a woman explaining the Hassidic custom of close-cropped hair under four or five wigs, then a boy at the hospital the night the Black boy and the Jewish victim died. Rose Carlson begins as the abstractly poetic Ntozake Shange, and ends as the slain Jew's brother --- an outraged Australian. And Yasmin Dixon comes from an abstract dissertation on mirrors and distortions from an MIT physicist to the final, distracted father of the dead boy.

Everyone involved seems passionately, selflessly devoted to the work. Al Needham and Larry Burnham from the local radio station put together a taped prelude consisting of rock music interspersed with bits of news-bulletins sounding quite real, and ending with the news of the accident and the stabbing to begin the show. And a singer whose stage-name is Kobi sits as a sixth performer throughout, punctuating the action with songs --- Black, Jewish, familiar, new --- all sung to her own original rhythms and melodies. Jennifer Hilton provided pointed slides that periodically set the Brooklyn scene or paint inter-faith inter-racial posibilities.

When she gets to see it all put together, I think their Artistic Director will be pleased.

I was.

( a k a larry stark)

"Fires in The Mirror" (till 24 August)
House of The Seven Gables Settlement House, 114 Derby Street, SALEM
Check their website.

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