A Message From Our Fearless Leader
There’s so much to tell you about that I’m going to dispense with the philosophic waxing and get right to the good stuff.
Anna Deavere Smith’s “Fires in the Mirror” opens our eighth full season, the same way her play “House Arrest” opened our sixth season, and in 2015, I had the privilege of directing “Let Me Down Easy,” her examination of our bodies and our spirits. There are three playwrights whose work I can’t help but come back to as a producer--Robert O’Hara, Lucas Hnath, and Anna Deavere Smith.
“Fires in the Mirror” is the earliest of her docudramas. It was a Pulitzer Prize finalist (losing to Angels in America, not half bad), and like much of her work, it has a curious structure that isn’t immediately apparent the first time you read it.
The play is made up of real interviews with real people. Some of them are famous (Reverend Al Sharpton and Angela Davis) and some are anonymous. Act One is a collage of America in the early 1990’s, honing in on the intersection of race, culture, and religion. It’s about how this melting pot we all live in succeeds or fails at being a community, and how we identify ourselves within different tribes. The full title of the play is “Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities.”
In Act Two, Smith looks at two incidents of violence and how they impact the community of Crown Heights, and the effect violence has as it ripples across the national conversation. A young African-American boy is struck and killed by a car driven by a Jewish man. The reaction to that death leads to a Jewish student being murdered. Riots ensue, conflicting narratives are presented, and while some voices are amplified, others are drowned out.
The theme for this season is “The Power of the Truth.” It brings to a close a three-year examination of the political and the personal. First with “Truth to Power,” then “Conviction,” and now a series of plays told over the course of a season that demonstrate the cost and consequences of speaking out--and why it’s necessary.
Like all of Smith’s work, “Fires in the Mirror” originated as a solo piece, performed by the playwright, but she encourages theaters to use her work for ensemble building, and that’s what we do whenever we embark on one of her journeys.
When I chose this play to begin our eighth season, I was worried that a bunch of people talking about life as it was in 1991 would seem dated. I had the same concerns where we did “House Arrest.” Both times my worries were unfounded. For better or worse, America is cyclical. It beats with a heart full of tension, and while the desire so many of us have to form a lasting and larger society that welcomes everyone in is still, as Langston Hughes said, “a dream deferred,” we create art to mark our victories and our failures along the way, and the fires we too often start and then leave behind.