“Fires in the Mirror” resounding at the J Theater depicts communities in conflict

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Ambiguity. Uncertainty. Absence of any clear and unitary truth. Conflicting identities. Events seen in divergent ways through the prism of these identities. Perhaps better, as the title of the play suggests, distorted events in the mirrors of a people’s consciousness of who they are and who the adjacent “others” are. This is the world of Anna Deavere Smith Lights in the mirrorcurrently playing at the J.

January LaVoy in “Fires in the Mirror”. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

The groups Smith examines are black (many of them of Caribbean descent) and Hasidic Jews (the Chabad-Lubavitch branch), living nearby in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood but in different cultural worlds, with tensions not far away. beneath the surface. In August 1991, a car driven by a bodyguard of the leader of the Hasidic community ran a red light, causing an accident that killed a 7-year-old black boy on the sidewalk, Gavin Cato. A few hours later, a Hasidic man, Yankel Rosenbaum, was attacked by a group of black youths, later dying of his wounds. Four days of violence followed.

In the year following the events, Smith interviewed numerous witnesses and commentators, weaving snippets of their statements into a complexly constructed web (not a narrative, in the conventional sense) of perceptions of the events and their significance. The only actor, January LaVoy in this production, portrays 26 different people in a series of brief monologues. LaVoy also co-directed the production with J Theater Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr.

The play requires the actor to portray, in quick succession, people who vary by race, religion, ethnicity, culture, age, gender, position, and education. LaVoy does it convincingly. Each individual is distinct, in terms of voice, physique and emotion. There are no missteps, no lack of authenticity. Pamela Rodriguez-Montero provides LaVoy with easily interchangeable costume pieces – jackets, ties, hats, scarves – that make it immediately apparent where each character fits into the intricate mosaic of Crown Heights.

When I say that LaVoy “represents” the various people interviewed by Smith, I mean that she does not attempt to literally imitate them. But she faithfully conveys what they have to say, in a way that is consistent with who they are, giving audiences the opportunity to examine and understand their contrasting perspectives. Meanwhile, projections by Bradley S. Bergeron—which at other times provide illustrative scenes from the neighborhood—display a photograph of the person LaVoy is playing at the time.

January LaVoy in “Fires in the Mirror”. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

The scenography by Nepheile Andonyadis, all in gray bricks, and the sound design by Tosin Olufolabi, who before the show and in the background of numerous scenes ensure the ambient traffic and other noises of the city, establish the resolutely urban setting of the piece. . It’s not a specifically Brooklyn setting, like you might find in a Spike Lee movie. It could be any city, which may be the point.

Smith’s arrangement of scenes is exquisite. Pretty much the first half of the show explores, sometimes indirectly, the kind of identity issues that ultimately drive the conflict to Crown Heights. A Haitian-American high school student talks about the stylistic and social divides between black and Hispanic girls at her school. Al Sharpton talks about modeling his hairstyle after that of James Brown, followed immediately by a discussion from a Hasidic woman about the role of wigs in her life. Angela Davis takes an analytical approach to black-white race relations, while another black scholar, Leonard Jeffries, offers a more intensely ideological view of the subject.

January LaVoy in “Fires in the Mirror”. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

The second part of the show deals directly with the Crown Heights dispute. Different people see the same things differently, based on the experiences of their communities and their own lives. An ambulance operated by the Hasidic community arrives at the scene of the accident. Did his staff simply assist the city’s paramedics, as requested, or did they ignore injured black children?

Looking at history, which was worse: American slavery or the Holocaust? The fact that those interviewed by Smith believe the issue is worth discussing speaks eloquently about the strength of the competing grievances of the groups involved and how their ways of seeing the world are influenced by long histories of racism and discrimination. anti-Semitism.

From the perspective of a spokesperson for the Hasidic community, the accident that killed Gavin Cato was simply an accident, without malice, while the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum was an anti-Semitic murder by black people who hate Jews and celebrate Hitler. In an impassioned speech, Yankel’s brother Norman demands justice, his speech coming just before a section recounting how, back home in Australia, he is shocked to learn of his brother’s death.

From the perspective of black residents and community activists, the Hasidic community is privileged, enjoying racially tinged favor from police and city officials. Why are Jews allowed to drive, carelessly and too fast, down a main street in the neighborhood, kill a child and suffer no consequences? Gavin Cato’s father’s solemn grief over the loss of his son speaks louder than any outburst of rage. Smith’s screenplay and LaJoy’s acting capture the truth and contradictions between all the voices.

Lights in the mirror shows the members of two groups, each marginalized in their own way, deeply suspicious and full of hostility towards each other, unable to agree on facts or their meaning, not really listening to each other and not acknowledging not their common humanity. Such a dynamic is not limited to 1991 Brooklyn, and Lights in the mirror is far from being a simple documentary on a half-forgotten conflict of the last century. In a country much more divided and suspicious than 30 years ago, the resonance of the room is more alive than ever, a mirror of our own time that deserves to be seen and pondered.

Duration: 1h40 without intermission.

Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities plays until July 3, 2022, presented by the J Theater performing at the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater at the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th NW Street, Washington, DC. Buy tickets in person ($40-$60) on line or by calling the box office at 202-777-3210.

Lights in the mirror also airs June 21-30, 2022. Streaming tickets ($60, valid for viewing from 10:00 a.m. to 11:59 p.m. ET) can be purchased on line or by calling the box office at 202-777-3210.

The program for Lights in the mirror is online here.

COVID Safety: In accordance with Edlavitch DCJCC policy, all individuals will be required to present proof of full vaccination each time they enter the EDCJCC by presenting either digital documentation on a smartphone or a physical copy of their vaccination card. People with medical or religious exemptions to vaccinations will be required to present proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within 72 hours of arrival at the EDCJCC. All Goldman Theater patrons will be required to wear masks. Only artists and guests invited on stage can be unmasked. Masks are optional but encouraged in lobbies, hallways and other public spaces on Q Street and 16th Street. Theater J hospitality staff and volunteers will continue to wear masks. For more information, see the J Theater COVID Safety Guidelines.

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