There is one word for Michael Benjamin Washington’s stunning performance in Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities (opening tonight at Signature Theatre, to Dec. 15): virtuosic.
Washington inhabits every character in Anna Deavere Smith’s Drama Desk award-winning play, originally performed in 1992—an oral history distilled from interviews with over 50 members of the Jewish and African-American communities affected in various ways by the Crown Heights riots of 1991.
The riots followed the death of Gavin Cato, 7, who was knocked down and killed by Yosef Lifsh, a Hasidic Jew; his sister Angela was seriously injured. Riots and fights broke out, and then Hasidic scholar Yankel Rosenbaum was stabbed to death by a black teenager, Lemrick Nelson.
This remounted production is directed with as much fluid grace by Saheem Ali as Washington himself possesses. He plays every one of the 25 characters we see on stage, from Carmel Cato, Gavin’s father, who was originally from Guyana, to Normal Rosenbaum, brother of Yankel. The voices include such well-known figures as Al Sharpton, Angela Davis, and George C. Wolfe, and then various voices from the two communities.
At one moment, Washington is convincingly inhabiting an anonymous female Lubavitcher pre-school teacher; at another a young African-American man who lives in Crown Heights. The set is stark and simple. Fashion accessories for the different characters are worn and discarded in drawers and containers. Photographs from the era are projected on the back wall of the theater. This is dense oral history, vividly and clearly relayed by Washington—the only question it begs is what happened next.
It begins with For Colored Girls playwright Ntozake Shange’s talking about identity; then an anonymous Lubavitcher woman relating a hilarious story about not being allowed to turn her radio off because it was Shabbos, and yet desperately wanting someone to turn the radio off. The play begins with a series of cultural vignettes and thoughts not connected to Crown Heights, but providing a context. As Angela Davis says: “What I’m interested in is communities that are not static, that can change, that can respond to new historical needs.”
Says Letty Cottin Pogrebin, one of the founding editors of Ms. magazine, “To get a headline, to get on the evening news you have to attack a Jew. Otherwise you’re ignored. And it’s a shame/And we all play into it.”
Minister Conrad Mohammed, New York minister for Louis Farrakhan, says: “The condition of the Black man in America today is part and parcel, through the devlishment that permitted Caucasian people to rob us of our humanity, and put us in the throes of slavery…”
The play then moves to the riots themselves, and the day of Cato’s death. Rabbi Joseph Spelman, spokesperson in the Lubavitch community, claims that Cato’s death was an accident; the Revd. Canon Doctor Heron Sam says the situation between the two communities is a “Mexican stand-off.” A young black man says: “You realize, man, ain’t no justice, ain’t never been no justice, ain’t never gonna be no justice.”
Norman Rosenbaum muses over his brother being murdered because of being Jewish, and the moment he heard the terrible news. There are some voices who think the problem of intra-racial is intractable, others who hope and work for understanding; and others, like Sharpton, who say that no understanding can ever come without a tough reckoning and admission of culpability; and then Carmel Cato, who muses on the awfulness of that day and, injustice, and his right to be present and have a voice.
There is no coda to Fires in the Mirror, no what-happened-next, no neat and factual tying up of facts. There are no judgments of any kind. You may leave the play, and immediately start researching the subject because the play only tells you what its participants tell you. You have been sitting in, like Deavere Smith, on many interviews and conversations. The play doesn't bundle and fold all this clashing material together with a neat editorial bow.
Washington’s superlative performance, crossing race, gender, age, and class, takes us right inside the wound of such a major event that is both personal and political in the rawest possible ways. It captures people in shock, and communities trying to cope and rationalize. We see people reaching out, closing down, and trying to make political capital. We become as aware of what bad can come from an incident like this, as well as what good.
Because Washington is performing it solo, because his body holds so many personalities and voices, it gives a validity and sense of wholeness to the play that broadcasts a profound set of messages itself. If we contain multitudes, communities hold multitudes upon multitudes. Fires in the Mirror shows this powerfully; almost 30 years old, its tense, ignitable faultlines of race and fear feel very close.