Smoldering embers

Be Boyd, a recent transplant from North Carolina to the drama faculty of Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, left the stage of Allied Theatre Group in tears at the close of Fires in the Mirror. Quite frankly, I'm surprised she didn't have to be carried off on a stretcher, the way she plunged herself into Anna Deveare Smith's reportorial collage of voices surrounding the August 1991 conflicts between black and Jewish residents of Crown Heights in Brooklyn.

It's exhausting enough to sit in the audience and listen to these 23 sorrowful, rage-filled voices accomplish absolutely nothing in America's ongoing debate about race and identity. But to be the performer who produces them, who must pour out all this carcinogenic hostility in a 90-minute-plus evening of theater and then go home, pet the cat, and switch on the TV must be a Herculean task of discipline. To describe this show as punishing is not hyperbolic; Boyd gamely stretches out on the sacrificial stone, and then plunges the knife into herself again and again.

I'd seen Anna Deveare Smith perform Fires in the Mirror in a special version taped for PBS. But this was recorded in a studio, with each of the monologues delivered facing the camera. As has been often discussed, Smith interviewed famous and obscure individuals involved in Crown Heights, where riots and demonstrations ensued when a rabbi's motorcade accidentally hit and killed a black child, and in retaliation a Jewish student was stabbed to death by blacks. She then transcribed their quotes, studied their accents and vocal rhythms for endless hours, then portrayed each one, offering utterly opposing opinions on the whole mess.

Watching Smith play each person to the camera did allow a more nuanced, even sympathetic look at the individuals, but it also dampened the blaze that Fires in the Mirror, when expertly performed live, boasts. Performing for Allied Theatre Group, Be Boyd is a crack shot with the voices and mannerisms, sweeping around the curves of the stage to address everyone in the house, releasing an angry one-woman mob on Fort Worth audiences. At first, I thought the PBS version featuring Smith lacked this crackling power; in truth, it was just more subtle. Smith almost turned the home audience into the interviewer; the tone, then, became almost conversational. In comparison, Boyd -- donning and doffing hats and robes and attitudes -- doesn't imbue these people with the empathy and intimacy that Smith brought to the toned-down TV version, proving that, at times, a whisper's more powerful than a scream.

Under the direction of Stage West co-founder Jerry Russell, the brawling contrast at Allied Theatre Group is more like alternating cannon blasts of racism and anti-Semitism. Smith delivered much of the bigotry in conspiratorial tones, as though the speaker knew how he or she sounded and was a little embarrassed about it but still determined to be honest. Boyd pounds the pulpit with most of the characters here. What they say is highly unlikable, and Boyd does little to invite you to peer behind their veil of hateful words and understand where this stuff is coming from.

That said, she does manage some riveting moments -- even of humor -- in Fires in the Mirror. The best of these comes when the Rev. Al Sharpton explains his follicular connection to James Brown, a father figure in his fatherless youth. The grand pompadour both men share is a peculiar but enlightening piece of black male bonding. The show begins with these broad kinds of philosophical anecdotes -- broader than this, even, as playwright Ntozake Shange expounds lyrically on the issue of identity and MIT physicist Aaron M. Bernstein brings it down to self-image with a scientific discussion about the play of light on mirrors. We then wind our way through Sharpton, Minister Conrad Mohammed (Louis Farrakhan's sidekick) fulminating on why African slavery was a bigger tragedy than the Holocaust, and Norman Rosenbaum (the brother of the slain Jewish student Yankel Rosenbaum), and climax with Carmel Cato, the Caribbean-American father of Gavin Cato, the boy hit by the rabbi's car. Ironically, it is Angela Davis, a woman often denounced as a radical, who offers the most sane metaphor here: that if people want to be anchored in their ethnic communities, that's fine, but those anchors have to have enough rope to lower them into other communities to see (and, one hopes, appreciate) the common humanity among them.

For all of its social relevance, there is still the sense that Fires in the Mirror is sort of an extended actor's stunt, or, perhaps more accurately, a stage triathlon in which the lone performer gets the chance to display great virtuosity but not much subtlety or insight. Much like Moises Kaufman's Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and that playwright's upcoming play about Matthew Shepard's murder, Anna Deveare Smith's multi-voice pieces are more craft than art. They are taped together impressively with the hot-button emotions these topics are sure to trigger, but still taped together, the creases visible in those moments when you stop listening with your heart and pay attention with your head.

One could argue, of course, that the rational mind should take a back seat while watching Fires in the Mirror simply because the show is intended to document America's racial insanity. But applying Anna Deveare Smith's method to this madness seems, in the end, to accomplish little more than a live if unusually rousing 90-minute talk show interviewing Crown Heights participants and observers. I've come to divine a more overarching design in great and good stage productions. By curtain time, the voices have all canceled one another out, and you're impressed, if not entirely moved, by a shotgun series of mimicries. A famous quote goes something like "all sound arguments are correct in what they assert and incorrect in what they deny or omit." You leave Allied Theatre, duly awed by Be Boyd's endurance and versatility, feeling that everybody who's spoken is simultaneously right and terribly wrong. Maybe that's just the insoluble nature of the racial dilemma in America, but rerunning it as live weekend performances feels tantamount to exploiting some tragic divisions for easy emotion.

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Jimmy Fowler