A Tightrope Take on a Tragic Accident
A Theater Review by Makai Walker
At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St, Richmond, VA 23220
Performances: March 26 – Sun April 25, 2021
Ticket Prices: $33 live and streamed
Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org
[NOTE: This production was made Covid conscious with a severely limited seating capacity of a maximum of 10 audience members at each performance, as well as other safety protocols that can be found on The Firehouse Theatre website.]
Fires in the Mirrorfelt like a 2-hour stroll through 90s New York and considering the premise of the show I’d call that a good thing. The one-person play by Anna Deavere Smith is a series of monologues collected from Smith’s interviews with real people and directed by Katrinah Carol Lewis who stared in another of Smith’s one-person plays (Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 at TheatreLab in 2017.
Fires in the Mirror tells the story of the Crown Heights Race Riots of 1991, the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum, and the car crash that started it all. It consists of 29 performed monologues taken verbatim from interviews with 26 subjects, some of whom were near or directly involved with the accident. In the first half of the play, we’re given context to the racial tensions roiling between the black and Hasidic residents of the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. This, unfortunately, is the weakest part of the play. Actor Jamar Jones puts his best efforts towards spinning an engaging and emotional story, but he is significantly hindered by the first act’s lack of focus and direction.
Act One involves various Black and Jewish people discussing the matter of identity. As a separate component, Act One is a highly informative and intriguing take on culture, but in the context of a play sparked by a specific event, Act One feels like an hour-long non sequitur.
As the second act begins, we take a deep dive into the fatal collision that claimed Gavin Cato’s life and the retaliatory murder of Yankel Rosenbaum. Unlike its precursor, Act Two is much more engaging. As the story unfolds, we peer into the perspectives of the people closely involved with the incident. The final two monologues, those of Rosenbaum’s brother and Cato’s father, are the highlight of the evening.
Jamar Jones evokes a playful and committed approach to the characters that never feels too distasteful and is truly lived in. His embodiment of the interviewees is breathtaking and thrilling to watch. In terms of themes, Fires in the Mirroris very open-ended about what it wants you to take away. As the play progresses, it hammers home the idea of an incongruous truth or the sense that no one knows what really happened. At times one feels an underlying rhythm of monologues that alternately dip into each “side” of the story. There is the Black side, the Jewish side, and then there are the elements of the crash that are added, embellished, or omitted. While watching, I kept getting flashes of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, in which four people take turns telling subjective or self-serving alternatives of the same story.
Anna Deavere Smith does a fantastic tightrope walk across the conflict and brings light to some of the more deep-seated racial issues in Crown Heights. The questions I kept asking myself was, “What is this play trying to say?” and “Who was right, who was wrong?” I agree with director Katrinah Carol Lewis; there is no winner or loser. This was a tragic accident and regardless of the fallout two lives were lost. That’s the “why” that needs examination.