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“Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities”

Long Wharf Theatre

Cloteal L. Horne is currently giving a brilliant performance in Anna Deavere Smith’s solo show, “Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights: Brooklyn and Other Identities” at Long Wharf Theatre.  Unfortunately, the production she is in too often feels overblown and somewhat misguided.  Director Nicole Brewer can certainly take credit for helping to elicit such a monumental portrayal from Horne, but the faults of the presentation must also be attributed to Brewer, as well.  When one enters the theater, the curtain is up and one sees a majestic screen against the back wall of the stage displaying a waterfall and the stage floor itself is covered with sand and some seashells.  It’s all very pretty, but what does it have to do with the tragedies which occurred in Crown Heights in 1991?

The answer to that question remains murky throughout the show.  I must confess that my feelings about the current production are affected by my having seen Anna Deavere Smith, herself, on the same stage in this show in the early 1990s.  Smith performed the show on an essentially bare stage and the effect was like a knockout punch.  In addition, the play was performed in one act.  The current production inserts an intermission in the middle of the show and the details of what happened in Crown Heights aren’t really presented until the second act.  Consequently, “Fires in the Mirror” at Long Wharf Theatre can feel a bit overlong.

Still, there is Cloteal L. Horne at the center of the show.  Her triumphant performance really demands to be seen and her strongest assistance in the production must be the ideal costumes provided by costume designer Mika Eubanks.  Horne fully embodies twenty six people in the show and this actress makes each character unique and definitive.  She moves easily between male and female characters, with just a change in voice and the addition of a precise piece of clothing.  Indeed, one can almost see a chain from Horne to Anna Deavere Smith to the real people whom Smith interviewed.  As stated, “Fires in the Mirror” at Long Wharf Theatre is a triumph for this current star.  It’s just too bad that the rest of the production doesn’t come together just as strongly.

One can get the feeling that something is amiss in this revival right at the start, when Horne comes out and greets the audience, explaining that she will portray twenty-six characters and then actually asks permission from the audience to do just that.  Why ask permission? It would just be better to just do the show, without this needless prologue.  Another key difference between the current production and the one which Anna Deavere Smith first starred in is that the name of each person is announced to the audience before Horne gets to portray that character onstage.  This isn’t a huge flaw, and is probably helpful for those less familiar with “Fires in the Mirror” than I am, but it is all too redolent of the excesses in this current staging.

Scenic designer Diggle has done a visually amazing job with the set, with likewise magnificent projections provided by Camilla Tassi, but it all feels like too much when one just wants to concentrate on each person embodied onstage.  One aspect which does enhance the show, though, is the effective sound design and almost hypnotic music, credited to Bailey Trierweiler, Daniela Hart and Noel Nichols.  Still, it is telling that, at intermission, my companion (who was completely unfamiliar with ‘Fires in the Mirror”) stated that they had no idea what the tragedies were that happened in Crown Heights, despite the fact that we had been watching the show for an hour.

It is a hopeful sign, when the second act begins, that it is immediately revealed, through the characters portrayed, the details of the two lives who were tragically lost in Crown Heights in 1991 and what ultimately caused the riots which shook the nation.  Indeed, this production would almost benefit from just performing the second half of the show, which contains the real power of “Fires in the Mirror.”  What’s more, Cloteal L. Horne seems to get even stronger and more amazing in the second act, but, ultimately, the audience is denied the opportunity to give this actress the ovation which she so richly deserves.  Instead, a directorial decision was made (not to be revealed here) that hinders Horne from giving a proper bow and truly robs the whole show of its devastating effect.  “Fires in the Mirror” at Long Wharf Theatre is worth seeing for the current star, but it is just a shame that the rest of the production too often gets in the way from being able to fully experience her fantastic performance.

“Fires in the Mirror” continues performances at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT through February 6, 2022.  For tickets, please visit www.longwharf.org.

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