A good story is told from beginning to end.
A great story gives you the background – context – that explains why the beginning may not be the only beginning.
A great, great story is what’s being told at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre in an absolutely stunning production of Fires in the Mirror by Anna Deavere Smith.
Brilliantly directed by Marcella Kearns and C. Michael Wright and performed by two of the most brilliant actors in Milwaukee, Marti Gobel and Elyse Edelman, this is a production that is every single thing that great live theater can be.
Ms. Smith, an accomplished actor, has made a marvelous second career as a documentary theater playwright. In 2016 Next Act Theatre staged her Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, based on the Watts riots after the Rodney King beating. Ms. Smith conducted countless interviews and used real dialogue as she created a multi-character play that, not coincidentally, featured Ms. Gobel.
At the time I thought it was as important a play seen in Milwaukee in ages. This production of Fires reaches even higher.
It is based on the riots in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in the summer of 1991. A car driven by a Jew was involved in an accident and seven-year-old Gavin Cato, a Guyanese child, was killed.
The black community reacted with rage at the Jewish community and three hours after the accident, a group of about 20 black boys and men stabbed and killed Yankel Rosenbaum, an Australian Jew in New York doing research for a doctorate.
What followed was three days of intense rioting and warfare that captured the attention of a nation.
Ms. Smith has crafted a 110 minute tale that, like the event itself, begins slowly and climbs steadily to an emotional summit that is breathtaking in its power.
Ms. Gobel and Ms. Edelman take turns playing 30 characters, ranging from Al Sharpton to a Muslim minister to an amusing Jewish housewife and an esteemed rabbi.
With slight changes – a hat, a scarf, a hoodie and a slight change in accent, and we see brand new characters before us.
The play begins with the context of identity – a journey through two ethnic groups that are more similar than they are different.
It’s most vividly clear in a speech from Angela Davis, the former Black Panther who was as vitriolic as any activist in the Civil Rights movement.
“This is what I’m working on in my political practice right now. We have to find ways of coming together in a new way. Not the old notion of coalition in which we anchor ourselves very solidly in our, um, communities and simply voice our solidarity with other people. I’m not suggesting that we do not anchor ourselves in our communities; I feel very anchored in, um, my various communities. To use a metaphor, I think that the rope attached to that anchor should be long enough to allow us to move into other communities, to understand, to learn.”
Ms. Kearns and Mr. Wright have set a careful and delicate pace to this piece. It’s as if they are coaxing the audience into relaxed and regular breathing, knowing that before too long breath will be a valuable commodity that is hard to come by.
The high art of this production is how it takes a terrible event – one of the earliest of urban riots – and turns it into an insightful gaze into the human condition.
Watching these two actors reach parts of the soul often untouched is a mesmerizing experience. Ms. Gobel always is a commanding presence on a stage, andMs. Edelman proves to be her rarely seen equal.
Mr. Wright is in his final season as Artistic Director at Chamber and he is clearly going out in high style with the most entertaining and thoughtful production of the season.
Cast: Marti Gobel, Elyse Edelman.
Production credits: Director, Marcella Kearns and C. Michael Wright; Stage Manager, Veronica Zahn; Scenic Designer, Lisa Schlenker; Costume designer, leslie Vaglica; Lighting Designer, MNarisa Abbott; Sound Designer, Sarah Ramos; Propmaster, Melissa Centgraf; Production Manager, Colin Gawronski; Dialect Coaches, Raeleen McMillion and Rick Pendzich; Production Photographer, Paul Ruffalo.