“Fires in the Mirror”, Anna Deavere Smith’s powerhouse solo play based on the Crown Heights riots of 1991, is as sadly timely, relevant and potent as it was when it opened in 1992. At that time it was the talented playwright who took center stage interpreting her own piece and wowing audiences playing 26 characters in 29 monologues. In the current revival of the play at the Long Wharf Theatre, a new generation has taken on the role(s) and she doesn’t disappoint.
“Fires in the Mirror” may be speaking about events in 1991 but the topic of racism, unfortunately, never seems to date. The genius of Smith’s work is the showcase she gives various voices and opinions about that turbulent clash between the African-American and Hasidic communities in Crown Heights. The first act ingeniously explores historical and personal stories from both sides of the conflict. Some voices are famous (Al Sharpton, Angela Davis), but most are ordinary citizens, teenagers, moms, preachers, community leaders and rabbis. And Smith makes this a tour de force challenge for any actress brave enough to take on her play.
At Long Wharf, that actress is Cloteal L. Horne and she proves more than up to the task at hand. Playing a range of characters – black, white, old, young, male, female, Horne gives definition and distinction to each one she inhabits. A sly smile, a hunch of the shoulders, a knowing grimace…simple gestures immediately delineate her characters both vocally and physically and she is never less than mesmerizing.
One only wishes that director Nicole Brewer had trusted Smith’s material and Horne’s dynamic performance without gilding the lily. This is evident in her choice of scenic design (credited to Diggle), one that takes up the entire Long Wharf stage and includes three levels and a huge projection screen. It is impressive, but tends to suggest a wellness spa in southern California and, mostly unused, seems to have little to do with the material. Smith had a bare-bones approach in the original production and Brewer should trust the play and her actress with the tenet that less is more. The director also misguidedly adds a prologue to the play having Horne introduce herself and explain what she’s going to do and then adds a coda at the end having audience members stand, take a cleansing breath and recite a hopeful mantra. It all borders on the pretentious and seriously undercuts the standing ovation Horne deserved. This is a case of a director who just couldn’t get out of her (or her actor’s) way.
Still, kudos must be given for Porsche McGovern’s expressive lighting and UptownWorks invaluable sound design as well as the multiple costume pieces provided by Mika Eubanks. The play is still the thing here and, with Ms. Horne center stage, you will not be unmoved.
“Fires in the Mirror” continues in a limited engagement through February 6 at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. For further information visit: www.longwharf.org or call the theatre box office: 203.693.1486. Patrons are required to wear masks and show proof of vaccination at the door.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and the Stratford Crier and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.