In 1991, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York, a member of the Lubavitch branch of Hasidic Judaism lost control of his car, jumped the curb, and killed a seven-year-old black child. This incident and the circumstances surrounding it led to a period of extremely high tension between the black community and the Jewish community in Crown Heights, including riots and the murder of the Lubavitcher Jew, Yankel Rosenbaum. As these events were unfolding, Anna Deavere Smith began a series of interviews with many of those involved in the conflict as well as those who were able to make key insights into its nature, its causes, and its results. In her play Fires in the Mirror, first produced in New York City in 1992, Smith distills these interviews into monologues by twenty-six different characters, each of whom provides an important and differing view on the situation in Crown Heights.
When Smith performs her play, she acts in the role of each interviewee, embodying his/her voice and movements, and expressing his/her message and personality. These perspectives combine to form a profound explanation of the conflicts between the different Crown Heights communities. Smith examines many of the historical causes of the situation, many of the racial theories that help to explain it, and a broad variety of opinions on the events and people involved, in order to come closer to the truth about what happened and why. Her play, which is the thirteenth part of her unique project On the Road: A Search for the American Character combines journalism and drama in order to examine not just the racial tension and violence in Crown Heights, but much broader themes, including racial, religious, gender, and class identity, and the historical conflict between these communities in the United States.
The opening section of Fires in the Mirror is called “Identity.” In its first scene “The Desert,” Ntozake Shange discusses identity in terms of feeling a part of, yet separate from, one’s surroundings. In the next scene, an anonymous Lubavitcher woman tells the story of a black child coming into her house on Shabbas, the Jewish holy day, to switch off their radio. “101 Dalmations” is George C. Wolfe’s perspective on his racial identity, in which he argues that blackness exists independently of whiteness.
Mirrors, Hair, Race, and Rhythm
The second section, “Mirrors,” contains only one scene, in which Aaron M. Bernstein discusses how mirrors are associated with distortion both in literature and in science. Physicists make telescopes with mirrors as large as possible in order to minimize the “circle of confusion.”
The next section, “Hair,” begins with a scene in which an anonymous black girl talks about how Hispanic and black teenagers in her Crown Heights junior high school think about race and act according to their racial identities. In “Me and James’s Thing,” the Reverend Al Sharpton explains that he straightens his hair (a practice that developed in the 1950s to simulate “white” hair) because he once promised the soul music star James Brown that he would always wear it this way. Next, Rivkah Siegal discusses the common Lubavitch practice of wearing a wig.
Angela Davis is the speaker in the only scene in the section “Race.” She considers how the place of blacks and women in U.S. society has changed since the 1960s, and then goes on to discuss the concept of race more generally. In the “Rhythm” section, Monique “Big Mo” Matthews discusses rap, particularly the attitude toward women in hip-hop culture.
The first speaker in “Seven Verses” is Professor Leonard Jeffries, who describes his involvement in Roots , the classic book and then television series about the slave trade. Letty Cottin Pogrebin argues in the next scene that blacks attack Jews because Jews are the only racial group that listens to them and views them as full human beings. Minister Conrad Mohammed then outlines his view of the...
(The entire section is 1,110 words.)