‘Fires in the Mirror’ on stage at Gibbs High School

BY FRANK DROUZAS Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — The Gibbs High School drama department is presenting its production of “Fires in the Mirror” by Anna Deveare Smith, which will run April 21-24. The play centers on the racial tensions between the Jewish and African-American communities in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y.

In 1991, after a Caribbean-American boy was struck and killed by a car in the motorcade of a prominent Hasidic rabbi, full-blown riots erupted in the area.

Erica Sutherlin, who teaches in the Pinellas County Center for the Arts magnet program at Gibbs, views her decision to put on this particular play as her response not only to the events of 2014—including the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner—but what has been happening in “black America” over time.

“I woke finally one day in my lifetime where I was afraid to be black in America,” she said. “That was a problem for me, and I’m 35 years old. So I had to figure out what was going to be my response as an artist. What am I going to say about this that does not add to the hate, but opens up dialogue?”

The structure of the work itself is unique in that it is presented as a series of monologues spoken by characters, which are based on interviews with people actually involved in the crisis. One thing that speaks to Sutherlin about the play is that the playwright does not interject her feelings or opinions into the work, but lets those that were involved act as the mouthpieces for what they witnessed and experienced firsthand.

“I think that in itself is brilliant,” Sutherlin attested.

In this Gibbs production, about 15 students will play multiple roles—including different races and nationalities from their own—and Sutherlin noted the difference between directing such a uniquely-structured play like this as opposed to one with a more conventional structure.

“The difference would be the ease and complexity of the production,” explained Sutherlin, who has taught at Gibbs for seven years. “The ease is aligned to the rehearsal process, which allows for flow. You’re not depending upon others in a scene to rehearse; however, it becomes complex telling the story since most people are accustomed to dialogue and interaction. You have to be a great storyteller to capture an audience, to connect the ideas of the play.”

Sutherlin notes that one powerful aspect of this play is that it was written for one woman. One actress had the job of taking the audience on a journey played through 25-26 different characters. “Now we, the cast, have to take you on that journey,” she said.

No stranger to the stage herself, Sutherlin has many acting credits to her name, including the role of Clairee in American Stage’s all African-American production of “Steel Magnolias” last year. She has also spent time in Los Angeles and made forays into film, which she said for her was a natural progression.

“I recently shot my first feature film with MMG and Victor Young Productions,” Sutherlin said. “It’s called ‘Stratosphere.’ I have worked on other filmmakers’ projects but this is my own and my first one. However, I am currently working on my second feature film—hopefully production will happen around this time next year.”

Also in the works for Sutherlin is the launching of 2106 Main, a performance space in west Tampa she plans to open with a friend. She refers to it as an “immersion space” for artists of all kinds.

“It is our desire to create performance art that speaks to the entire community,” she affirmed, “where the community is reflected onstage. Where our stories, struggles and successes are celebrated and/or explored onstage. We want to bring our artistic vision and voice to Tampa Bay.”

Concerning her personal desire to put on a powerful play like “Fires in the Mirror,” she explains in her director’s notes for the production’s program:

“I am so tired of HATE…it is the thick mass of murky heaviness laden upon our communities; suffocating us, poisoning us, forcing us to choose sides in OUR America. Hate disenfranchises and justifies. Hate is heavy, bulky, lopsided, burdensome, disproportioned, dangerous, deadly, overwhelming, obnoxious…Hate is knocking on the door of equality and everybody is acting like no one is home.

Some days I wish to lay down my brown skin and just breathe. But this is just my beginning!”

“Fires in the Mirror” will be on stage in the Gibbs High School auditorium, located at 850 34th St. S., St. Petersburg. The show runs from Tues., April 21 through Fri., April 24 starting at 7 p.m. Ticket prices: Adults $10 and students $8.

For more information, please call (727) 893-5452 ext. 2030.

To reach Frank Drouzas, email fdrouzas@theweeklychallenger.com

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