Fires in the Mirror is an exploration of the Crown Heights riot, a period of civil unrest in the community of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, New York, which resulted after the death of a seven-year-old Black boy who was struck by a vehicle driven by a Jewish man in August 1991.
Considering the premise and because it was a one-person show, I wasn’t expecting my strong emotional reaction and how I could identify with some of the people in the story. Playwright Anna Deavere Smith offers various perspectives on the events that occurred during that time based on interviews she conducted with the people involved in this tragic real-life event. As directed by Nicole Brewer, the show became a reflection of two marginalized communities trying to survive the biases against them while events boiled over and played out on the world stage.
Scenic Designer Diggle did an amazing job mixing two very different concepts – a Native American land tribute and the streets of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and turning the stage into a thing of beauty. (Baltimore Center Stage pays tribute to the Native Americans that the theater’s land belonged to prior to European colonization.) It was one of the more captivating sets I’ve been privileged to witness. You could feel the ancestors from around the world gathering in the space. It was simple but breathtaking: from the separate black and white pools of sand to the rustic wood found in a bench and on various chests along the perimeter of the stage. The immersive quality with sound by Uptown Works and the soothing lighting by Porsche McGovern allowed for your mind to be reflective and open. Even the screen projection designer, Camilla Tassi, added stunning visuals to the story without being a distraction.
The one and only actress, Cloteal L. Horne, played 26 different characters. Can I say this woman had range? The characters she played went from a Jewish woman discussing difficulties with her radio during Shabbat to Al Sharpton sharing a story about his hair and what James Brown meant to him. Horne allowed the words and the lives of the people whose stories she was telling to shine. From her mannerisms and the costuming by Mikka Eubanks, each character took on their own brief life in this storytelling. Kudos, Cloteal, kudos.
The task of expressing so many viewpoints with such passion, such heat must be a complicated and overwhelming project to take on. (In alternate performances, the actor is Khanisha Foster.) But I am glad it was done. And it was done with grace, care, and respect to those who shared their stories. There were moments of discomfort as when comparing the severity of the Holocaust to chattel slavery here in America. The legacy of Roots and how the profits went to share more stories about Jewish history and the lawsuits that followed. The Jewish man who because of his blonde hair and blue eyes was chosen by his town to do whatever he needed to survive so he could share their story. Unbelievably that included marching everyone who shared a train car with him into the gas chambers to their death to prove he wasn’t Jewish. Among those numbers were his wife and children.
These and other stories told the histories of people and their experiences within the African American and Jewish communities—stories that aren’t always heard over angry voices. Fires in the Mirror forces you to be silent while you listen to voices other than your own. You may not always agree with what is being said but it’s another step closer to understanding the situation and the mindset that engulfed a community where 66 civilians and 168 officers were injured, 163 people were arrested, and 1,500 police officers were dispatched during this time. This event, this story, needed to be told and it was told well. Even though there are some moments of humor, this is not a play to be taken lightly.
In the reflective space created by the play, the lives that were lost are honored: Gavin Cato—the seven-year-old Black child killed by the vehicle driven by Yosef Lifsh, which in turn became the spark that lit the powder keg—and Yankel Rosenbaum—the 29-year-old Jewish student who was stabbed, which led to his death later that night in the hospital, continuing to fan the flames of discord and distrust in a community mired in pain and misunderstanding. Even though 30 years have passed, the stories told in this play could easily appear in today’s headlines.
This play should be seen. It should be experienced.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes including a 15-minute intermission.
Fires in the Mirror plays through December 19, 2021, at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 North Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD. Tickets (starting at $49 with discounts available for seniors and students) can be purchased online.
COVID Safety: Baltimore Center Stage’s first priority is the health, safety, and well-being of our audiences, staff, artists, and guests. Our current policy is that masks must be worn at Baltimore Center Stage and may only be removed in designated eating and drinking areas. Proof of vaccination—or a negative COVID PCR test within 72 hours of show time — is required.
SEE ALSO: Baltimore Center Stage 2021/22 season is a go (season announcement)
Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities
Conceived, written, and originally performed by Anna Deavere Smith
Directed by Nicole Brewer
Featuring Khanisha Foster and Cloteal L. Horne, in alternate performances
Long Wharf Theatre, Production Partner
Diggle, Scenic Designer; Mika Eubanks, Costume Designer; Porsche McGovern, Lighting Designer; UptownWorks with Bailey Trierweiler, Daniela Hart & Noel Nichols,
Sound Design and Original Music; Camilla Tassi, Projection Designer; Norman Anthony Small, Stage Manager; Grace Chariya, Production Assistant; Raecine Singletary, Assistant Director; Rodrigo Hernandez Martinez, Assistant Scenic Designer; Allison Esannason, Assistant Costume Designer; Vianey Salazar, Assistant Lighting Designer; John Horzen, Assistant Projection Designer; X Casting, Casting; Rachel Finley, Accent Coach