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Review: Reflections That Sear in a Reborn ‘Fires in the Mirror’

Nearly three decades after it was first unveiled, the panoramic view provided by Anna Deavere Smith’s “Fires in the Mirror” still makes you catch your breath and shake your head in sorrow. In the Signature Theater’s crystalline revival of this documentary drama about the Crown Heights race riots of 1991, its reflective surfaces seem, if anything, more acutely focused, its patterns both sharper and more damning.

“Healing,” as it refers to a possible reconciliation between races at combustible odds, is a word that’s pronounced with skepticism in this production, which opened on Monday at the Pershing Square Signature Center. As you meet different representatives of the black and Hasidic communities that clashed so destructively during one violent August in Brooklyn, the chasm that separates them gapes wider than ever.

Yet no one who attends this production is likely to leave clogged with despair, even as you’re aware of how deeply divided this nation remains. As performed by the remarkable young actor Michael Benjamin Washington, embodying more than two dozen different characters, and directed by Saheem Ali, “Fires in the Mirror” energizes with its sheer force of clarity. It’s one of the consolations of first-rate art that there is somehow always hope in being able to see with newly unobstructed eyes.

“Fires” is indeed confirmed here as an enduring work of theatrical art, far more than an ingeniously configured piece of investigative journalism. When it first opened at the Public Theater in 1992, a little more than a year after the events that inspired it, critics and theatergoers scrambled for a label to define a type of show few of them had ever seen before.

Was this a slice of oral history, an animated version of the kinds of books that the writer Studs Terkel regularly assembled on Americans at work and in crisis? Was it exceptionally sophisticated performance art with a social conscience?

After all, the researcher, writer and sole performer of the original “Fires” was one person, Smith. Delving into the back story of the riots that followed when a young black boy was killed by a car driven by a Hasidic Jew — and the subsequent murder of a Jewish scholar by a group of black men — Smith herself conducted the interviews that made up the show.

Though the piece unfolded as a series of monologues, there was also an implicit dialogue between Smith and her subjects. Her expert interpretations as an actress of these diverse personalities were informed by her particular, on-site perceptions of them. She became, as it were, how she saw them.

This personal closeness to the material — and the fact that the incidents discussed here were still raw in the memories of most New Yorkers — gave the production a rare urgency. You can still feel that rush of warmth by watching the PBS television adaptation of the show, directed by George C. Wolfe (who is also, by the way, one of characters Smith portrayed in “Fires”).

Ali’s version wisely avoids trying to replicate the show’s initial impact. It is cooler in its approach and, inevitably, more distanced — both by time and by Smith’s absence on the stage. Washington, who appeared in last year’s Broadway revival of “The Boys in the Band,” doesn’t have Smith’s gift for transformative mimicry, and you only rarely feel he actually becomes the people he portrays.

But he always gives you enough characterizing detail to make everyone come to life, whether it’s as one of the fiery, polemical religious leaders from either side of the racial divide (including the Rev. Al Sharpton); witnesses who range from a Lubavitch Hasidic housewife to young black men on the scene on the accident; the Australian lawyer Norman Rosenbaum, the brother of Yankel Rosenbaum, the visiting scholar who was stabbed and beaten to death on the streets; or cultural theorists who include Angela Davis, the playwright Ntozake Shange and the Ms. Magazine founder, Letty Cottin Pogrebin.

There’s a generous transparency about Washington’s portraiture, a compound of sympathy and contemplation that suggests a warm variation on classic Brechtian remove. (His seamless transitions among the characters, usually realized in full view of the audience, is aided by the minimalist sartorial accents provided by the costume designer Dede M. Ayite, which he layers over a white shirt and black trousers.)

Only in the show’s concluding monologue does he seem to melt utterly into the person he is playing. That’s Carmel Cato, the Guyana-born father of Gavin Cato, the seven-year-old boy whose death set off the violence that followed.

The immediacy of Cato’s description of trying to reach his injured son after the accident and of his disorientation in the days that followed reminds us that great grief has its own harrowing poetry. It is also an account with which all of us should be able to identify, no matter how little we have in common with the speaker. Yet the sobering takeaway of this production is that the cultural walls that separate the black and Hasidic communities here are so insurmountable as to preclude such identification.

What feels more apparent than ever is how artfully Smith sets up this dichotomy. The play begins with a disarming, informative ease, with monologues from academics, artists and everyday citizens on the rules, rituals and fashions — particularly those involving hair styles — by which these different tribes of people live.

There’s an almost amused distance in some of these accounts, which vanishes as others speak of the unspeakable legacies of oppression and destruction borne by black and Jewish Americans. There arises, alarmingly and inevitably, what is effectively a debate as to which history is more horrific, that of slavery or the Holocaust. By the time we’ve moved into accounts of young black people — children, in many cases — storming the streets, the chaos feels predestined.

The infernal messiness of this war of identities has been rendered with uncommon elegance and precision. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set, lighted by Alan C. Edwards, picks up on the imagery of the title, using differently angled banks of mirrors that subtly capture (and reverse) the play’s projected titles, Washington’s metamorphoses and even us, the audience.

One of Smith’s interviewees is the M.I.T. physicist Aron M. Bernstein, who talks about the distortions of mirrors, particularly as they’re used in telescopes. If there are errors in constructing them, he says, “you’re gonna have a circle of confusion.”

The mirrors that Smith has built distill confusion into a wondrous translucence. Being able to see clearly — and at this point, to acknowledge how the divisions portrayed here remain so much with us — may not provide any kind of solution. But it lays the enduring groundwork for the kind of sane, open-eyed conversation that is too rarely held these days and has never felt more necessary.

Fires in the Mirror

Tickets Through Dec. 15 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, Manhattan; 212-244-7529, signaturetheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.

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