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Review: FIRES IN THE MIRROR: CROWN HEIGHTS, BROOKLYN AND OTHER IDENTITIES at Theater J

Now on stage through July 3rd.

Review: FIRES IN THE MIRROR: CROWN HEIGHTS, BROOKLYN AND OTHER IDENTITIES at Theater J
January LaVoy in Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities.

It's been said that there are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth. The cheeky phrase is actually quite profound - it suggests that every perspective is skewed, just a bit, never fully right or wrong.

This spirit of varied perspectives is the central theme of Theater J's latest production, Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities. Centered around the tragic events of August 1991, when a Black child was killed and violence between the Black and Jewish communities in Crown Heights ensued, Fires in the Mirror is based on transcripts of those interviewed in the wake of the tragedy. Featuring well-known political figures, family members of the victims, and average citizens caught in the crossfire, Fires in the Mirror explores not only the aftermath of these events, but the layered lives and identities within the communities impacted. The play, originally written and performed by Anna Deavere Smith, is a thoughtful, nuanced, and beautifully presented portrait of the communities in Crown Heights and those connected to them. Instead of seeking out the truth of who is to blame, as many would be tempted to do, Smith instead searches for - and finds - the humanity of each individual.

Fires in the Mirror is the final production for Theater J's Artistic Director, Adam Immerwahr. The choice to leave with this play rather than the more celebratory Nathan the Wise (his penultimate production), may seem puzzling on the surface, but, in truth, Fires in the Mirror encapsulates many of the themes Immerwahr brought to Theater J on and off the stage. He leaves behind a legacy of elevating different voices and perspectives, particularly those of racially and ethnically diverse Jewish playwrights. While Fires in the Mirrorisn't the work of a Jewish playwright, like those featured in the Expanding the Canon program, it leans into the same concept of broadening how we define "Jewish" theater, and challenges viewers to look beyond our default communities. This examination of identity and community is central to many of the plays overseen during Immerwahr's tenure with Theater J, and it's fitting to conclude his time with the company with a production that encapsulates those ideals.

For this production, Immerwahr partnered with the incomparable January LaVoy, who co-directed the production as well as took on the immense task of starring in this one-woman show. LaVoy is an impressive and vivacious performer, managing to embody each distinct character completely, even with minimal - though effective - costumes and props, courtesy of Pamela Rodríguez-Montero and Nicholas Battaglia, respectively. From her vocal inflections and speech patterns to her posture and body language, LaVoy portrays the array of characters - ranging across ages, races, accents, and perspectives - with an impressive ease. It's often hard to believe this is all the work of a single actress, but her range is nothing short of brilliant. She captures the well-known characters accurately, mimicking their identifying tones and presentation, and easily slips into local Brooklyn accents - as a New Yorker who's cringed over many a poor Brooklyn accent, I was particularly impressed by her accuracy and range, especially since there is no vocal coach attached to this production, indicating Ms. LaVoy pulled off this feat with little guidance and her own immeasurable talent. The directors guide her characters' movements around the stage, never allowing the space to feel overly large or underutilized. This is aided thanks to the use of Bradley S. Bergeron's excellent projections, depicting the interviewees and scenes from Crown Heights, Nephelie Andonyadis' straightforward brick set, and Max Doolittle's solid lighting.

Review: FIRES IN THE MIRROR: CROWN HEIGHTS, BROOKLYN AND OTHER IDENTITIES at Theater J
January LaVoy in Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities.

Part of what makes this production so successful is the pacing. Between the script and the Theater J team, the tension builds slowly - the show starts with simple introductions to community figures, then becomes more intense as the events of the accident and attacks unfold. What's also clever is how each story is presented - they all have similarities, but often differ greatly in their details, but no one perspective is presented as "truth." The show never tries to suggest one set of events is right or more accurate, but instead gives space for all community perceptions, even when they contradict each other. The result is something much more profound - this production isn't a search for the timeline of events, but for the way those events affected people. And that answer is far messier - and far more interesting. There's also something deeply resonate about exploring the human impact of these incidents rather than simply studying the time itself - the sense of identity and community, the clash of ideas in a small space, and the ripple effect all of these can have on a neighborhood are all motifs that can and do provide insight into our own time and events. Fires in the Mirror may be a time capsule, comprised of interviews from a particular point in time, but it also, frankly, holds up that mirror to our society today.

Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities is an intense, but fascinating production, with a powerhouse creative team on and off the stage. It's a wonderful production in its own right, and a fitting farewell to Theater J's Artistic Director.

Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities plays at Theater J through July 3rd. The show is produced in partnership with Theatrical Outfit in Atlanta, Georgia. Production run time is approximately one hour, forty minutes, with no intermission. Trigger warnings for detailed discussions of violence and death of children.

Photos courtesy of Ryan Maxwell Photography.



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