Play: Fires in the Mirror
Group: Mustard Seed Theatre
Venue: Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre, Wydown at Big Bend
Dates: February 2 (matinee), 4, 5, 6, 7
Tickets: From $10-$25, and free to students; contact 314-719-8060 or www.mustardseedtheatre.com
Story: As part of her project, On the Road: A Search for the American Character, professor/actress Anna Deavere Smith interviewed more than two dozen people, some famous and others obscure, about the race riot in 1991 in the Crown Heights neighborhood of New York City that ensued after a car driven by a Hasidic Jewish man struck and killed a 7-year-old Caribbean-American boy. Her interviews comprise this one-act, 75-minute presentation, essentially a series of monologues that describe reactions to the incident from the viewpoints of different people and diverse cultures in that Brooklyn community.
Highlights: Director Lori Adams has deleted roughly half of Smith’s interviewees, but the power and passion of the remaining individuals come through pointedly in their direct addresses to the audience. Just two actresses, Michelle Hand and Rory Lipede, essay all the roles, each one moving gracefully between parts while the other engages observers with comments, sometimes humorous but often scathing, about the incident specifically and race relations in general.
Other Info: Adams meticulously choreographs the succession of monologues, utilizing snippets of video provided in Kareem Deanes’ design that identify various speakers as well as offer poignant photos that capture the essence of the times and locale, complemented by his sound design which incorporates a blend of musical styles running the gamut from hip hop to sacred.
Both actresses convey their considerable communication skills. Hand marvelously and convincingly shapes her portrayals with a variety of accents that pinpoint her characters’ various ethnic and/or educational levels, from a wealthy Jewish writer to the simple but dignified and devastated father of the dead boy. Lipede, while not quite as articulate as her counterpart in all of her portrayals, savvily shows us the background for the sometimes vulgar Rev. Al Sharpton as well as the banal menace of a brooding African-American activist named Sonny Carson in delicious interpretations.
The words of the characters’ speeches are enhanced by the set design of Courtney Sanazaro that depicts the shabby shells of forlorn buildings on a city street made all the starker by Michael Sullivan’s lighting, which maintains an eerie, desolate effect. Kirsten Wylder’s costumes match the personalities and temperaments of the broad range of speakers to further enhance the overall mood of the piece.
The primary criticism of Smith’s piece is that, in the end, the lack of interplay between characters somewhat stifles dramatic impact. Without direct conflict between individual characters, an audience essentially listens to a series of monologues that, while powerful, lack the stimulation and sizzle of direct confrontation, a dilemma consistent with many such works.
Still, Fires in the Mirror is an engaging and provocative piece that successfully distills the thoughts and emotions of diverse cultures and ethnicities which frequently comprise an American neighborhood.
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.