When Anna Deavere Smith first wrote and performed her now-renowned plays Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 in the early ’90s, they were the equivalent of mic drops to the art form. Her ambitious works came to be recognized as the genesis of a new kind of theater, something like documentary and reported journalism, in the form of strings of monologues, transcribed from interviews then artfully juxtaposed, edited, and performed to create a nuanced, self-interrogating perspective on racial conflict. But the plays also joined Deavere Smith’s ambitions as a playwright with her ambitions as a performer, creating a medium through which—perhaps more so than in a more traditional play or one-woman show—the actor can showcase the totality of her range, or conversely exhibit any number of weaknesses. In that sense, Deavere Smith, like any great artist, gifted us with works so powerful that they sit at a kind of summit of artistic ability, a challenge and a dare to a performer who must also bear the weight of documenting a reality: real people and a real history.
In other words, it’s tough work. And in its 2019–20 season, as part of Anna Deavere Smith’s residency, Signature Theatre is presenting both plays, with different actors. The first, Fires in the Mirror, directed by Saheem Ali, is performed by Michael Benjamin Washington, who was recently in the Broadway premiere of The Boys in the Band (and will appear in an adaptation of that play for Netflix). Fires in the Mirror tells the story of the racial strife around the Crown Heights riots in 1991 through a series of short monologues from various people, both known and anonymous, from the black and Jewish communities. “I’ve learned through the thousands of people that I’ve interviewed, that when things fall apart, people speak in the most stunning, communicative, even musical ways, in order to make sense of the disarray around them and to restore meaning and dignity to their lives,” Deavere Smith writes in a note that accompanies the production, which opens with monologues by Ntozake Shange and an anonymous Lubavitcher woman and ends with Carmel Cato, the father of Gavin Cato, the black child who was killed that summer in Crown Heights.
Washington begins with his back to the audience, his posture one of unpracticed cool, nonchalantly smoking a cigarette. He speaks, through the words and voice of Shange, about identity with a beautiful metaphor about a desert. It’s a lovely entryway into the production, general but fitting the play’s larger context and also breezily poetic. Washington handles it well, inviting us in with the confident purr of the artist speaking about art, before donning a robe and grabbing a laundry basket to transform into an Orthodox Jewish woman. Washington is a talented performer, and it’s apparent, though he also appears out of his depth at certain points in the production. He leans in to bigger personalities, understandably—they’re the candy of the play, the low-hanging fruit for any actor faced with the feat of representing such varied voices.
He represents the Reverend Al Sharpton, for example, as stiff-backed and high-headed–idly fingering a pendant around his neck as he declares, “I won’t tolerate being insulted. If you piss in my face I’m gonna call it piss. I’m not gonna call it rain”–before taking emphatic sips of tea and comically rolling his eyes as a Lubavitcher woman named Roslyn Malamud. Washington brims with energy as Sonny Carson, laughing heartily as he pauses from swilling wine and taking bites of a meal, and he shrinks down to the size and posture of a young black girl, his cadence quickening to match the excitement of a junior-high-schooler sharing some gossip. But some of the other personalities are less distinct, and Washington’s accent work is often clumsy, hindering the performance. The last monologue, from Carmel Cato, is meant to deliver the final shot to the gut in an already emotionally and intellectually wrenching play, but Washington can’t fully get a grasp on it. Tears stream down his face freely, but Cato’s Guyanese accent trips him up and holds him back; there’s just the slightest touch of self-conscious remove that holds the performance as performance and doesn’t let it sink past the facade.
But there are certainly moments during this production when it appears clear that signaling the performance as performance is a choice in Ali’s direction. In her note, Deavere Smith also writes about her suspicion of the Stanislavski method as a tool of active empathy and universal understanding. She says, “Everyone involved in this enterprise is being asked to work not from an assumption that the seeds of human experience live inside of them, but from a proposal that the reach towards another human—knowing full well that there will always be distances between us—is a potent reach.” The production gestures toward this distance. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set design—a desk and chair and a back wall of mirrors, the top panel of which angles down toward the stage, showing Washington from a different perspective—refers back to the play’s title and its reflections on identity but also reveals the performance and sometimes almost seems to contradict it. We see Washington donning different mannerisms and postures, but the mirrors, the top panel in particular, reveal a more static identity. It’s in Washington’s performance too—the characters’ occasional hiccups and stutters and various verbal tics aren’t always performed naturalistically but in a way that recalls Washington’s role as simply the portrayer, and the play as the conveyance of something real, a documentary project.
It seems a bit obvious to say that Deavere Smith’s work stands up today—and yet I’ll say now that it does. Though the production occasionally struggles under the heft of what Deavere Smith has accomplished—as, one can imagine, any production would—the performance, when it works, is a pleasure to experience, and the fire of the work remains intact.