Fires in the Mirror. Revisiting the Crown Heights Riots and the birth of Anna Deavere Smith’s new theatrical genre

It would be hard to overstate the city-wide trauma that occurred in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in August, 1991, nor the power of “Fires in the Mirror,” the groundbreaking documentary play about it nine months later at the Public, which introduced New York theatergoers to the astonishing theater artist Anna Deavere Smith. That power comes roaring back in a revival at Signature that, for the first time, features an actor other than Smith.
On August 19, 1991, Gavin Cato, the seven-year-old son of immigrants from Guyana, was fixing his bicycle on the sidewalk in front of his home on President St., when the driver of a car in the motorcade of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the rebbe of the Lubavitcher Hasidic Dynasty, lost control of his vehicle and plowed into Gavin, killing him. The tension between black and Jewish residents of the neighborhood ignited into riot, and a day later, Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year-old Australian studying in New York for his PhD. , was walking in the neighborhood when he was surrounded by young black men, and stabbed and beaten to death.
“When things are upside down,” Anna Deavere Smith explained at the time, “there is an opening for a person like me” – by which she meant for an artist.

Smith recorded interviews with more than 100 people about the events in Crown Heights, and about the myriad complex issues that they raised, such as the meaning of identity and community and race. She presented more than two dozen of the people as characters on stage, portrayals that reproduced verbatim not just their words, but their verbal tics and gestures.
Her performance was extraordinary. A film adaptation of it directed by George C. Wolfe, is available on YouTube

How much of the show’s power was a result of her unique talents as an actor? That was my question before attending the revival of “Fires in the Mirror.” Michael Benjamin Washington answers that question, giving a fine performance and at the same time demonstrating the intrinsic strength and artistry of Smith’s work.

“Fires in the Mirror” offers, without judgment and with implicit compassion, a breadth of personalities — rabbis and reverends, activists and everyday residents — with views that conflict, contradict, supplement or concur. But how they present themselves and what they say also often resonate way beyond what happened in Crown Heights. Indeed, the playwright waits until almost halfway through the nearly two hour running time to bring up the events at all.  The first to speak is playwright Ntozake Shange (who died last year) who discusses what identity means, followed soon thereafter with another playwright George C. Wolfe (then artistic director of the Public Theater)  on what it means to be black, keeping intact their mix of eloquence and incoherence, and even slips of the tongue: Wolfe says: “I mean I grew up on a black – a one-block street –
that was black.” In-between the two playwrights is an anonymous Lubavitcher woman who tells a long, hilarious story of enlisting a non-Jewish boy from the neighborhood to turn off her radio during the Sabbath.  There are many subtle juxtapositions that explore both similarities and differences, and suggest a bit of hopefulness among all the tragic disagreements and misunderstandings .  When we first meet the activist Al Sharpton, he talks only about why his hair is the way it is — he made a promise to his mentor and friend the singer James Brown to keep it that way for the rest of his life.  Sharpton is followed immediately by Rivkah Siegal, a graphic designer and Lubavitcher who talks about the five wigs she wears, and the religious reasons for doing so, and how she’s ambivalent about it all.

These portraits, none lasting more than a few minutes, offer a context for the events when we hear about them, devastating monologues from such devastated figures as Gavin Cato’s father and Yankel Rosenbaum’s brother.

It is easy to feel that “Fires in the Mirror” transcends the particulars of its immediate subject, and see the Crown Heights conflict as a lesson from the past bracingly relevant to more urgent matters today.  But we’re fooling ourselves if we think what happened in Crown Heights is safely in the past. At a talkback I attended after the play, two proud residents of the neighborhood (one black, one Jewish) told how irksome it is that every article about  Crown Heights, no matter what the subject, seems to mention the riot in the first paragraph. On the other hand, as recently as 2011 I attended an art exhibition called “Crown Heights Gold” at the Skylight Gallery of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, in which 23 Brooklyn artists tried to make sense of the riot on its twentieth anniversary. Photographer Jamal Shabazz exhibited two photographs of happy families: one Hasidic in a park, another Afro-Caribbean on a stoop. Both were entitled “What If?” — meaning, what if Gavin Cato and Yankel Rosenbaum had lived? What would they and their families look like?

Like it or not, the Crown Heights riot continues to affect us in ways direct, and indirect, and strange. Many blame the riot for the defeat of Mayor David Dinkins, the first black mayor of New York, by a former federal prosecutor, Rudy Giuliani; that first election is arguably what set off the sequence of events that has him currently all over the news.

Those three dozen works of arts at that Crown Heights exhibition were asking the same questions that “Fires in the Mirror” continues to ask, among them: How do you turn death into art? Can that art heal?

Fires in the Mirror
By Anna Deavere Smith. Directed by Saheem Ali. Scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado, costume design by Dede M. Ayite, lighting design by Alan C. Edwards, sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman, projection design by Hannah Wasileski, dialect coach Dawn Elin-Fraser.
Cast: Michael Benjamin Washington
Running time: One hour and 50 minutes, with no intermission.
Tickets: $40-$80
Fires in the Mirror is on stage through December 15, 2019

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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