Insert Comma logo
Insert Comma • A Portfolio of Leigh E. Rich
Powerful play depicts difficult issues in racism

‘Fires in the Mirror’ examines identity, hate and cooperation

By Leigh E. Rich

Don’t expect a Holly wood happy ending, comedic strife and a few musical numbers from Anna Deavere Smith’s “Fires in the Mirror,” Arizona Theatre Company’s third production in its 1995–1996 season. Instead, Smith’s acclaimed play portrays the all too realistic uglier side of humanity, replet e with hatred, racism and “all the epithets that go along with it.”

“Fires in the Mirror” presents and contemplates the 1991 incident between Hasidic Jews and Blacks living in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York. Riots ensued that August among the residents after a car carrying Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Hasidic rebbe, ran a red light and collided with another car, accidentally hitting and killing Gavin Cato, a seven-year-old Black boy from Guyana.

Rumors spread throughout the Black community that a Jewish-run ambulance helped the driver of the car and its Hasidic passengers while the African-American children lay bleeding to death, and the Jews were accused of being “more interested in licking their own wounds.” This notion, consequently, incited a group of young, Black men to stab bystander Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year-old Jewish scholar from Australia, that night.

Smith’s play recounts details from the unfortunate incident, citing dialogue verbatim from her own interviews with community leaders, police, and Crown Heights residents. Conceived, written and originally performed by Smith, “Fires in the Mirror” is a 90-minute examination of fear, hatred and distrust from all sides of the story.

ATC director Matthew Wiener continues Smith’s agenda—all of the differing and conflicting voices in the play are told only through three, female actors—perhaps in order to demonstrate that the self and the other can be understood, can be one. As one of the Jewish residents in the play stated, “Because you can be Black and be Jewish.”

Wiener’s ensemble cast (Angela Bullock, Cheryl Rogers and Laurine Towler) engages the audience in a dizzying and passionate perusal of all of those involved. These talented three create a myriad of incontrovertible characters, who embody our own fears a nd biases up on stage. The pointing of fingers and the squawking over claims of being the “chosen people” are sickening to see. As most of us are unscathed, Smith brings the riots to us and makes us “want to scream to the whole world” as we watch the in terminable “Us vs. Them” rift grow wider.

But her play has a deeper meaning. Smith reminds us of historical figures like Frederick Douglas, Malcolm X and Booker T. She lets us hear the gruesome stories of Holocaust survivors. She depicts the inequalities most minorities painfully encounter in the justice system. She paints a picture of what it is like to be an Orthodox Jew. And she conveys the tension and mistrust inherent in individuals on both sides of the conflict—and, to some degree, present in us all.

Most importantly, Smith and the ATC offer a medium with which to explore volatile concepts like racism, slavery and persecution. These are not things of the past. Every year, for example, the KKK still protests the Martin Luther King holiday nationwide. However, Smith’s play purports that “we’re still near [enough] to each other to reach,” but we must find “new ways of coming together that allow for the vastness of our cultural heterogeneities.”

“Fires in the Mirror” addresses the rage and the fear in our human species. It exhumes the heart of theater, not just a medium which entertains but also one which teaches. And Smith has something important to say. “If the only way I am going to respect you is to understand you,” then we must all begin to envision the other in ourselves.

It is Smith’s hope that this means more than merely acknowledging that “they were hiding in their houses just like I was.”

Rich, L.E. (1996, January 18). Powerful play depicts difficult issues in racism. Arizona Daily Wildcat.

Comments are closed.