Theater review: “Feuer im Spiegel” at the Theater J

Jan LaVoy in Fire in the Looking Glass. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

In many ways,”Fire in the Looking Glass: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities” is both a journalistic work and a play. Originally conceived, written and performed by Anna Deavere Smith in 1992, the show explores the aftermath of the Crown Heights riots in August of the previous year. Days of unrest and violence between the black community and the Hasidic Jewish community erupted in the ethnically diverse Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn after a Jewish man accidentally hit two black children with his car, killing one and seriously injuring the other.

LaVoy embodies each character so effectively that at times I had to remind myself that each monologue was narrated by the same person.

The play consists entirely of monologues, taken verbatim from interviews Smith conducted with Crown Heights residents, scholars, journalists, and artists—people who might speak on the issues at hand. All of the people depicted are portrayed by a single actor, and as a result “fire in the mirror” requires a level of versatility that few actors have. The performer must truly embody each character and bring them to life on stage to tell a story that is simultaneously documentary and dramatic. The performer must remain true to the people she portrays while conveying a level of interpretation necessary to weave an effective narrative across the various monologues. “Fire in the Mirror” can therefore only be effective with a truly remarkable performer to bring it to life.

Luckily, the Theater J production has this actress in January LaVoy, who also co-directs with Adam Immerwahr. In fact, LaVoy is so effective at portraying each character that at times I had to remind myself that each monologue was narrated by the same person. She is particularly adept at making clear the differences between characters without relying on superficial character portrayals. Instead, those distinctions come from the emotional and intellectual depth she brings to each character (as well as a truly impressive array of accents). Taken individually, each monologue could serve as a master class in impersonating a real person on stage.

But of course these monologues should not be taken individually. In fact, it’s the continuous line and moments between these monologues that make this piece and production so effective.

After all, “Fire in the Mirror” at its core it is a piece about identity. As LaVoy steps in and out of the various characters, which she often does right in front of us on stage, she also steps in and out of different identities. There is a touch of irony in this, as one commonality between many of the characters is their inability or unwillingness (or both) to step out of their identities themselves. In such a tense atmosphere, for many of these characters, identity becomes something they hold on to, something they wear with pride, and something they both share with those around them and use to differentiate themselves.

The concept of identity occupies the first half of Fires in the Mirror. before the Crown Heights riot is even mentioned. However, once discussed, there is a common theme among many of the characters that identity is now also a tool for them to process what happened in their neighborhood. No two people have the same understanding of what led to the riot or what happened during it, largely because their personal identities lead them to different conclusions.

For some, clinging to identity leads to greater division between communities. For others, however, understanding their own worldview helps them understand how others may see the world differently.

Fires in the Mirror never concludes who is right. As a theatrical and journalistic piece, it is less interested in finding objective truth and more interested in exploring how so many different truths can exist simultaneously.

Today, that exploration feels extra forward-thinking. Just two years after the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, and at a time of extreme polarization, identity has once again become a national conversation. In many ways “fire in the mirror” captures the year 2022 just as well as it did 1991, and Theater J’s production is particularly effective at it.

Running time: Approximately 100 minutes without a break.

“Fire in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities” runs at Theater J at the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center in Washington, DC through July 3, 2022. 1529 16th St. NW, Washington, DC 20036. To buy tickets, click here.

COVID-19 Health and Safety: Proof of vaccination or recent negative test and masks are required.

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