Ill-timed humor undercuts powerful ``Fires in the Mirror''

September 10, 1993|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Contributing Writer

Although incendiary newspaper headlines are no guarantee that sparks will fly when the same stories are told on stage, Anna Deavere Smith manages to enmesh us in the tensions between African-Americans and Jews in her powerful solo show titled "Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities."

She does so by refusing to engage in easy polemics. Instead, she presents us with nearly 30 voices representing the spectrum of opinion about the incidents that resulted in a summer of violence in 1991. And just as those tensions are still simmering as New York Mayor David Dinkins faces re-election, audiences at Washington's Arena Stage must acknowledge that the voices in Ms. Smith's play speak to unresolved racial problems throughout our country.

If these voices seem true to one's own recollection of the Crown Heights strife, it's because Ms. Smith actually interviewed people in the neighborhood. She edited down their statements for the purposes of dramatic concision, but did not alter their dialogue. Relying on just a few changes of costume and vocal inflection, she presents us with an impressive array of arguing humanity. No wonder this play hit home when first mounted in New York last year.

Further heightening the quasi-documentary tone are projected titles identifying the speakers, black-and-white slides of neighborhood life, and a sequencing of the voices that carries us forward from festering ethnic relations to riot to analysis.

Also pulling us into this human documentary is her inclusion of some voices that are as controversial as they are familiar. They include playwright Ntozake Shange off on a poetic riff as she tells us that "Identity is a psychic sense of place," and the booming voice of activist the Rev. Al Sharpton attesting to the hairdo influence exerted by James Brown.

But for all the astuteness of these mini-characterizations, her most memorable impersonations are of the "anonymous" folks: a 13-year-old black girl whose every look in a mirror makes her think about her place in society; rabbis and black ministers whose conflicting rhetoric makes you wonder if they worship the same God; and a Jewish woman who says she gets along with her black neighbors, though "we don't mingle socially."

Despite the incisiveness of such portraits, "Fires in the Mirror" sometimes verges on caricature. Gestures tend to be a bit broader than they need to be. Likewise, Ms. Smith's emphasis on the unintentionally funny remarks people make tends to defuse the anxiety at the very moments in the play when we should feel nervous -- real nervous.

"Fires in the Mirror"

Where: Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater, 6th and Maine Avenue SW, Washington

When: Tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7:30 p.m.; Sept. 16, 17 and 18 at 8 p.m.; with a Saturday matinee on Sept. 18 at 2:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees this Sunday and Sept. 19 at 2 p.m.

Tickets: $26 to $39

Call: (202) 488-3300

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