Can an Anna Deavere Smith docu-play work without, well, Anna Deavere Smith? Michael Benjamin Washington (“The Boys in the Band”) more than proves that it can in Signature Theater Company’s stirring revival of “Fires in the Mirror,” which opened Monday night.
Washington takes on nearly 30 different roles in the course of the two-hour, intermissionless production — from well-known figures like Angela Davis and the Rev. Al Sharpton to anonymous Orthodox Jews and African American teenagers living uneasily in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. The subject is the race riots that broke out in 1991 after a car driven by a Hasidic Jew sped through a red light, hitting another car and then swerving onto a sidewalk and killing a 7-year-old black boy named Gavin Cato. (That night, a group of African Americans retaliated by stabbing an Australian Jewish scholar — who died in the same hospital as young Gavin.)
The tragedy of that epoch in New York City life was amplified by long-standing grievances and misunderstandings by both communities — something that Smith documented in a series of interviews with key players that formed the basis for her 1992 play.
Like Smith, Washington delivers a tour-de-force performance that makes limited use of props — a head shawl, a pair of glasses, a teacup — to suggest each of his characters in the broadest physical strokes. He leans heavily on vocal distinctions, both accents and pacing, as well as posture to portray individuals from very different backgrounds and walks of life.
He’s also slavishly faithful to the transcription of Smith’s interviews with the various characters in the drama, black and white, Christian and Jew — though sometimes his insertions of ums and uhs sound more like read-backs of a transcription than the natural utterances of people stumbling for the right words.
What emerges most clearly in director Saheem Ali’s thoughtful revival is both the technical brilliance of Smith’s play — anticipating as it did other documentary-style theatrical works like “The Laramie Project” and even the output of the Elevator Repair Service company — as well as the sturdiness and durability of its craftsmanship. This is a one-person show that doesn’t depend on its creator alone to bring it to full and vibrant life.