6/11/2021          FIRES IN THE MIRROR           Theatrical Outfit


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The On-Line Program gives us the following background:


On August 19, 1991, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York, one of the cars in a three-car procession carrying the Lubavitcher Hasidic rebbe (spiritual leader) ran a red light, hit another car, and swerved onto the sidewalk. The car struck and killed Gavin Cato, a seven-year-old Black boy from Guyana, and seriously injured his cousin Angela.


As rumors spread that a Hasidic-run ambulance service helped the driver and his passengers while the children lay bleeding, members of the district’s Black community reacted with violence against the police and the Lubavitchers. That evening, a group of young Black men fatally stabbed Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year-old Hasidic scholar from Australia. For three days, Black people fought police, attacked Lubavitcher headquarters, and torched businesses while Hasidic patrols responded with their own violence.


(C) 1993 WGBG Educational Foundation.  Excerpted from educational materials created for AMERICAN PLAYHUSE’s public television production of “Fires in the Mirror” and published in the 1993 Anchor Books edition of the script.


Actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith rose to prominence with her “Documentary Theatre” style of writing and performing.  Essentially, she conducts hundreds of interviews with eyewitnesses to an event as well as with “national spotlight” personalities who “joined the conversation.”  She then edits the interviews to a series of monologues, performing them all herself.  This approach was first used in Fires in the Mirror (1992), which she soon followed up with Twilight: Lost Angeles, 1992 (1993) about the riots following the Rodney King beating.


This approach is an effective means of stripping a situation of political bias while retaining the very real politics of the individuals involved.  It goes to the heart of the forces and trends that stoke the fires of an incident.  And putting contradictory points of view into the mouth of a single actor humanizes them, creates a compelling empathetic response to characters you may not (make that WILL NOT) see eye-to-eye with.


I remember seeing both these plays on PBS’s American Playhouse series and being impressed with Ms. Smith’s ability to morph into characters of any age, ethnicity, or gender, and being impressed with the style’s ability to tell stories I only thought I knew.


Sadly, the (almost) thirty years since these plays were first produced has done nothing to change our penchant for identity politics, for reducing any volatile situation to “us and them,” to “heroes and villains.”  Sadly, any protest/riot event from the past year (especially January 6) would benefit from Ms. Smith’s approach and talent.


Happily, though, Theatrical Outfit has chosen Fires in the Mirror (*) as its final Live Stream prior to returning to Live Shows in the fall.  Even (more happily)  they have chosen January Lavoy to act and co-direct (with Adam Immerwahr), and she (most happily) excels at both.


The play is composed of 29 monologues arranged in thematic groups (“Identity,” “Hair,” “Seven Race,” “Rhythm”), but the piece ends with a 15-monologue block focused on the riots themselves and the Crown Heights ethnic ethos that provoked them. 


Some of the monologues are of recognizable public figures (Rev. Al Sharpton, Director George C. Wolfe, Activist Angela Davis, Poet Ntozake Shange, Rapper Monique “Big Mo” Matthews), some of whom, truth to tell, come across a bit facile and self-serving.  Most of the monologues are from “people on the ground,” residents of Crown Heights, witnesses, victims.   It is a combination that gives a truly vivid tapestry of all the various long-standing resentments and identities (and some of the public drum-beating) that were (perhaps) at the root of the riots.


For me, the most effective pieces were from “Anonymous Girl,” a middle-schooler who innocently catalogues all the Caribbean and African :identities already taking root at her school, Norman Rosenbaum’s description of his brother dying in the streets, and the final gut-wrenching testimony from Gavin Cato’s father, Carmel Cato.  This is not to diminish the other monologues, all of which are the witness’s own words, edited to a poetic and compelling rhythm, and delivered by Ms. Lavoy with utmost sincerity and skill.


Make no mistake, this is a powerful piece of theatre, and forcefully reminds us that anger and resentments can be (somewhat) assuaged by seeing the humanity in the other, in the villain.  As Ms. Lavoy said in a recent interview, “No one sets out to be a villain.”  And these 29 voices, powerfully amplified by Anna Deavere Smith, are all equally human, even if equally complicit in the fiery situation.


Ironically, only a few weeks ago I praised the movie version of Oslo for reminding us that seeing the humanity in the enemy is always the first step to peace,  Now, Fires in the Mirror elegantly reinforces that ideal.  Hopefully, it’s not an ideal echoing in a vacuum.


            --  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com  @bk_rudy    #toFIRES)


(*)  Full Title:  Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities.



BTW, I also recommend finding the published script to this piece to complement your viewing experience.  In addition to a compelling introduction, Ms. Smith includes “scene set-ups” for each monologue, giving the context pf her interviews with each subject, and revealing minutiae that Ms. Lavoy is not shy about incorporating into her characterizations.


For example, compare this description with Ms. Lavoy’s portrayal of George C. Wolfe:


(The Mondrian Hotel in Los Angeles.  Morning.  Sunny.  A very nice room.  George is wearing denim jeans, a light blue denim shirt, and white leather tennis shoes.  His hair is in a ponytail.  He wears tortoise/wire spectacles.  He is drinking tea with milk.  The tea is served on a tray, the cups and teapot are delicate porcelain.  George is sitting on a sofa, with his feet up on a coffee table.)


Here’s a link to the Kindle Version