FIRES IN THE MIRROR: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities

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.

THIS BITTER EARTH

A Bittersweet Play on Interracial Dating

A Theater Review by Makai Walker

Play by: Harrison David Rivers

Directed by: Brandon Rashad Butts

At: Richmond Triangle Players, 1300 Altamont Ave, Richmond, VA 23230

Performances: Onstage Jan 28 – Feb 20, 2021, On-Demand beginning Feb 13, 2021

[NOTE 1: This production was made Covid conscious with the show at a reduced 20 seat capacity and following CDC guidelines]

[NOTE 2: Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and a few poorly timed ice storms, I conceded my in-person tickets for a video-on-demand version of the play. It didn’t make too much difference in the viewing experience, though I was afforded the luxury of pausing the show for a restroom break or two.]

This Bitter Earth: a Bittersweet Play on Interracial Dating

To make an analogy, This Bitter Earth was a 90-minute waterslide with a long line to the top, an exciting trip down, and an unfortunate splash into the shallow end, leaving you longing for the slide you just shot out of. It tells the story of Jesse (played by Andrew “Rou” Reid), a black playwright whose apathy towards the Black Lives Matter Movement is called into question by his white boyfriend Neil (played by Evan Nasteff). The story starts on a slower note. I found myself checking the time stamp every few minutes to see how far along I was. However, it does start on an interesting note; Jesse begins with a monologue spoken directly to the audience. Neil appears, interrupts Jesse, and they segue into a vignette where the two engage in a drunken, oddly sweet conversation, interrupted by a loud crash. This scene is repeated, beat by beat, at least three or four times throughout the play, each time offering the audience a bit more context. This device serves the dual purpose of defining their relationship and developing intrigue.

The pacing feels off the entire play. I believe this has to do with its structure, as the whole play is a series of vignettes strung together with no thought to chronological order. However, this is never made clear. The appeal of This Bitter Earth ignites in the middle. That is when the vignettes start to spark thought-provoking questions about what it means to be passive towards the BLM movement as a black person, the white guilt/white savior complex, or what baggage comes with being someone’s first black partner. Though fascinating, I wish the topics were expanded on, as these issues are not seen often in entertainment media, and I commend writer Harrison David Rivers for nailing this exploration.

Despite these harmonious notes, the ending of this play made me want to stop the play entirely. It felt clunky, rushed, and overall let me down from such an amazing middle portion. Neil betrays Jesse in a mind-boggling way that leaves the viewer utterly stupefied about Neil’s motives. This is underscored by the fact that Jesse, completely broken, forgives Neil, who appears to have moved on, and begs him to come back into his life. For the final nail in the coffin, the story closes with an ending pulled straight out of Rent, Falsettos, Brokeback Mountain, or most any other queer-focused property. The ending is outdated, out of place, and outright cliched to death. It doesn’t evoke sympathy from the viewer considering the magnitude of Neil’s betrayal and its placement in the narrative.

Plot-wise, This Bitter Earth left much to be desired, though the play’s appeal comes less from the story and more from the characters and their thematic purpose. Andrew Rou Reid hits a homerun with his portrayal of Jesse. The way he balances Jesse’s apathy towards the BLM movement is no less than fascinating. Many of the complex thoughts Jesse/Andrew worked through on-stage made his character sympathetic, relatable, and charming. In my favorite scene, Jesse recounts a dream and wholly and utterly sums up this character’s entire being in a monologue executed directly downstage. Neil I found harder and harder to like as the story continued. Unfortunately, about forty-five percent of Neil/Evan’s dialogue consisted of the word “fuck.” I have no aversion to the word nor any naive ideals about adult language, but the repetitive usage had me drawing comparisons to the plays in high school where the characters would swear just because they could get away with it.

I also felt that Evan’s portrayal of Neil had little contrast in terms of energy. There were too many high-energy moments and too few subdued ones. As his character was written, what repelled me from Neil was his reaction to Jesse’s feelings on the racial issues he was facing. I think the play wanted to pitch these characters as two sides of the same coin, but, in light of recent BLM activities, that choice seems quickly outdated in assessing Jesse’s attitude to the BLM movement.

Overall, the themes the story explored were more intriguing and deserved more attention than the arc of Jesse and Neil’s relationship. Jesse and Neil were in so much conflict throughout the piece you’re left wondering why they were together in the first place. In every other vignette, they were at odds, and had the story focused on the nuances of interracial dating, as opposed to the false dichotomy of apathetic black person and white “super ally,” the narrative would have been more cohesive. Harrison goes as far as having Jesse say “All Lives Matter,” which in the current context is an excruciating thing to hear out of a black person’s mouth. Despite these feelings, Jesse is a conscious enough black person when calling Neil out on his white-centric behaviors, causing the entire dichotomy to fall flat and call the story’s crux into question.

I would like to say I was blown away, but I just wasn’t. This Bitter Earth felt more like a study in race and queer theory than a play about a relationship – a relationship that, upon deeper inspection, just doesn’t make sense and plays out as a theatrical exploration into interracial dating.

WELCOME MAKAI WALKER

Makai Walker (pronouns they/them) is a sophomore Theatre Performance major at VCU. They are part of the first class of interns with the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle – informally known as AMP – and my mentee. This is Makai’s first review for RVArt Review. Look for their work to appear more frequently as our theaters begin to venture out into the post-pandemic word. Makai will be offering a fresh, new perspective, one that may often differ substantially from mine! After all, I have been writing about theater more than twice as long as they’ve been alive. – Julinda D. Lewis, Editor/Publisher of RVArt Review.