Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities

Northlight Theatre

at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie

By Jack Helbig

Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman show is a brave, urgent, radical work. Part of a series she began creating in the early 80s, “On the Road: A Search for American Character,” Fires in the Mirror concerns the Crown Heights riots of six years ago, a crucial indicator of current race relations.

Smith’s series of monologues is based on several startlingly original premises. The first is that all the text comes from word-for-word transcriptions of interviews she conducted. For the last two decades she’s been traveling around the country interviewing people, both marginal and prominent, then assembling these interviews into verbatim texts she herself performs. And they are verbatim, reproducing every uh, um, and stutter, every mispronounced syllable, every odd word, every linguistic tic.

Sometimes the effect of Smith’s exactness is comic, as when she quotes poet-playwright Ntozake Shange desperately trying to define identity. “It, is, uh . . . in a way it’s, um . . . it’s sort of, it’s uh . . . it’s a psychic sense of place, it’s a way of knowing I’m not a rock or that tree?” But even in a passage like this, Smith’s overall intent is serious. She isn’t mocking Shange in this, the first speech in the printed edition of Fires in the Mirror, but establishing what a difficult concept identity is. Even more important, she’s re-creating, as realistically as possible, the specific answer Shange gave.

This specificity is very important to Smith, who tries at every level of her work to show that situations are more complicated than they look, that individuals do not behave only according to their class and race, and that the more you simplify and generalize, the farther you move from the truth. Smith wants us to look, really look the world square in the eye and see people for who they are, whether black, white, Jew, or Muslim. Like her pal Cornel West—who once mocked “color-blind” Republicans who claimed they never noticed that Colin Powell was black—Smith holds no truck with people who willfully blind themselves in an attempt to see a prettified picture of America.

Which brings us to Smith’s second great premise: she wrote the play with the intention of playing all the people herself. One minute she dons a wig and she’s the over-the-top Reverend Al Sharpton, the next she puts on a shawl and plays a Lubavitcher woman, and later, slicking her hair back, she’s Minister Conrad Mohammed of the Nation of Islam. Anyone who saw Smith perform Fires in the Mirror here two years ago knows how exactly she re-creates the people she’s impersonating, right down to the sugar packet Minister Mohammed smacks against the table as he talks.

With as volatile a subject as the Crown Heights riots and their acrimonious aftermath, during which the black and Jewish communities in New York found themselves at war, Smith’s idea of taking on all the roles herself is a healing act of empathy. And this is a function that, as an African-American actress, she is well suited to fulfill. Thanks to the shameful legacy of minstrel shows, no sensitive white man or woman of the 90s would dare create a show in which he or she imitates black people. And thanks to the legacy of drag comedy, no black man could play a white Jewish woman without the campiness obscuring Smith’s message.

But as a light-skinned black woman, Smith inhabits a neutral territory in the contemporary imagination, forcing us, in Cornel West’s words, to “examine critically our own complicity in cultural stereotypes that imprison our imagination and thereby make us parochial and provincial.” The startling exactness of word, gesture, and look with which she performs these acts of re-creation underscores each person’s individuality.

So what happens when you take a one-person show intended to be performed by the person who wrote it and turn it over to another actor? How much of its essence is lost? Now suppose you turn the piece into a two-person show, what if anything is gained? Russell Vandenbroucke raises these questions with his Northlight Theatre version of Fires in the Mirror, currently running at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. But considering the slack, low-energy production, with a white Jewish actor and a black actress dividing up Smith’s roles, Vandenbroucke doesn’t seem to realize how much he’s changed the chemistry of the piece.

Yeah, yeah, I know—the black/white casting reinforces the black/white conflict at the center of the riots, which began when a Lubavitcher Grand Rebbe’s driver lost control of a car in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and killed a seven-year-old black kid. The rioting continued for three days, and it was during this time that an African-American stabbed a young Hasidic scholar, Yankel Rosenbaum; he died a day later.

But it’s this very white-versus-black, Jew-versus-African-American way of looking at things that Smith is trying to transcend. As she writes about the Crown Heights situation in the introduction to the play, published in 1993, “On the surface this picture was Black and White. When one looks more closely, one sees something much more interesting. . . . One sees motion, and one hears multiple symphonies. The Black people didn’t all come from one place, and neither do the Hasidim. One looks closely and one sees that not every hat is the same kind of black hat and not every yarmulke is the same kind of yarmulke.”

When you look at Vandenbroucke’s production, however, you see black and white—that’s it. Perhaps if the acting in the show were vivid and inspired, the actors would dispel this initial impression of shallowness. But sadly Cheryl Lynn Bruce and Fredric Stone are not that good. Neither handles Smith’s material as well as she does. And both seemed woefully underprepared.

Stone’s impersonations don’t come anywhere near Smith’s depth. The few times he’s asked to play a black man, he seems very uncomfortable and unsure of himself. (Bruce plays all the sharpest, most interesting black men in Fires—Reverend Sharpton, Minister Mohammed, Leonard Jeffries.) But Stone’s performance is especially flat and superficial when he’s playing Jewish women, as if he were using all his energy to keep from slipping into a comic characterization. By contrast Bruce performs her many roles with a vivacity and urgency that approach Smith’s. But she doesn’t always convince us that she knows her lines, and it’s hard to tell, when she falters, whether she’s reproducing Smith’s transcription or stumbling herself.

What’s most troubling about this lukewarm production, however, is how much Vandenbroucke and his not-ready-for-opening-night players distort Smith’s message by their inability to reproduce with sufficient vividness the people who populate Fires in the Mirror. Instead of individuals we get badly done stereotypes; instead of an evening of provocative theater we get public-affairs programming, which keeps us in our dogmatic slumber and prevents us from dealing with the very issues of identity, race, and justice that Smith points out divide and unite us.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo by James Fraher.