Ryan Maxwell Photography
Recently we spoke with actor January LaVoy who is starring in Theater J’s Production of Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities. This groundbreaking documentary style play, originally written and performed by Anna Deveare Smith, delves deep into the aftermath of the Crown Heights Riots of August 1991. Read the full interview to hear January’s take on the show and what it’s like to perform such a powerful work.
GatherDC: Can you tell us a little bit more about the show?
January: Fires in the Mirror is a documentary theater piece, consisting of curated and edited interviews that Anna Deveare Smith conducted in the aftermath of the Crown Heights conflict in August of 1991. I think of it as a sort of “symphony” of the voices of the people on the ground at that time, which she composed and conducted as a piece of theater. But it is all first-person perspective, so you are hearing from 26 different people—real people—in their own words.
GatherDC: What made you decide to be a part of this experience?
January: As a biracial Black woman, I have always been fascinated by questions of identity and community, and I’ve been aware of (and, frankly, in awe of) Anna Deavere Smith’s work for as long as I can remember. So despite the enormous challenges presented by the piece, it was kind of a no-brainer for me, once I was offered the opportunity.
GatherDC: What’s it like playing 25 plus different characters?
January: Exhausting and exhilarating. I’ve worked as a full-time audiobook narrator for many years now, so my acting muscles that help me inhabit different characters emotionally and vocally are pretty well-toned! And yet, physicalizing these characters—fully inhabiting them on stage—is a very different proposition than doing it in a studio, behind a microphone. Not to mention that in a recording studio, I’m always reading! Here, the first step was being able to memorize over 90 minutes of material, in the exact words of the folks who said it, with all of their “ums” and “uhs” and cutoffs in the middle of a thought. Honoring their very real, very human speech patterns was a huge challenge for me.
GatherDC: What are you most excited about in this show?
January: I’m so excited to perform this in this particular theater, in this particular community. It’s an honor to be asked to present this story, in which I have to inhabit many Jewish roles, at a JCC—it’s an honor to be entrusted with that work, as someone coming from outside the community. I take that responsibility very seriously.
GatherDC: What has been the most challenging part of this role/roles?
January: Some of the characters in this piece—probably most of them, if I stop and think about it—espouse views that are not only in opposition to mine, but frankly, views that I find abhorrent. That is true of many, many of these characters, no matter which community they come from. Some are expressing views that were considered “mainstream” or “acceptable” in the early 1990s, but are now considered regressive, harmful, and even bigoted. My job as the actor is to portray these characters without judgement or comment, but simply to allow them to live on the stage as they did in the world. I sometimes have to actively remind myself of that when I’m working on the piece.
GatherDC: How do you hope that people relate to this play?
January: I hope that people come in ready to listen. I don’t think we, as a society, are very primed to listen right now—and I’m not just talking about opposing views. We are so anxious and concerned about being “heard”, while at the same time, we often discount the desire of others—even within our own communities—to voice their own truth. Everyone has a story, and every story is different, and I think that having to sit and listen to 26 real people talk for an hour and a half—without being able to respond—is a very interesting (and potentially powerful) exercise for audiences today to engage in. So I hope that folks will come ready to listen.
Tickets are still available! Go to Theater J and use promo code: GATHERDC18 to get an 18% discount on tickets to the show!
Not valid on previously purchased tickets. Cannot be used on subscriptions or combined with other offers. Offer valid on in-person performances and streaming tickets to Fires in the Mirror.
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