By Jana Rivera
WHILE THE PUNDITS wrestle with issues of racism from their podiums and try to reassure us "we've come a long way" since the upheaval of the 1960s, the largest and most deadly racial riot of the century breaks out in South-Central Los Angeles in April 1992. By the time order is restored, 60 people are dead, 2,383 are injured, and property damage is estimated at $800 million.
The Los Angeles riot followed a smaller, but no less significant, racial clash on the opposite coast in August 1991. As a police-escorted entourage carrying Lubavitcher Grand Rebbe Menachem Schneerson traveled through the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, one of the cars careened out of control and killed a 7-year-old African American boy playing on the sidewalk.
As an angry mob gathered, the young Jewish driver of the automobile was whisked from the scene in a private ambulance. Three hours later, a 29-year-old Hasidic history professor was stabbed on the street five blocks from the scene of the accident. Rioting between Lubavitchers and blacks ensued, with New York Mayor David Dinkins, New York Police Commissioner Lee Brown, and the New York police force in the middle.
Anna Deavere Smith uses the events of the Crown Heights incident as the impetus for her play, Fires in the Mirror, now playing at Arizona Theatre Company.
However, the play reaches far beyond Brooklyn. It speaks to every citizen responsible for race relations in this country. That would have to be all of us. And it does so, I might add, scrupulously without bias.
Smith brings to the stage the voices of 23 characters either closely or remotely related to the Crown Heights incident, using verbatim dialogue gathered through her own journalistic-style interviews. Then she just lets them talk, no matter where that talk leads them--down the road of ignorance and hatred or on the path of enlightenment--she simply lets them go. Smith's obvious strength lies in her selective process. From what must have been hours of interviews with dozens of people, she unflinchingly elucidates 90 fully packed minutes of arresting dialogue.
Fires in the Mirror was originally a one-woman production, conceived, written and performed by Smith. In the ATC production, Angela Bullock, Cheryl Rogers and Laurine Towler portray all 23 characters aided by quick costume and voice intonation changes.
Through riveting performances by all three actors emerge the words and characteristics of Reverend Al Sharpton, Ntozake Shange, Angela Davis, Leonard Jeffries, Hasidic rabbis, Jewish housewives, street kids, community leaders and relatives of the dead.
Some of them talk directly of the events--or at least their interpretation of the events--while others talk of the big race-relations picture, while still others only of themselves. Some cannot understand the hatred, while others can't seem to get past it. Regardless, each sheds light on the events of that night in Brooklyn and the relationship we have with one another.
In one particularly engrossing scene, Smith juxtaposes the black slavery experience with the Holocaust through the anger of Minister Conrad Mohammed (one of Louis Farrakhan's ministers), who finds no sympathy for five years of the Holocaust when it's compared to 300 years of slavery. He shares the scene and speaks alternately with Jewish author Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who reminds us the Holocaust was no small tragedy.
In the middle of the hatred and confusion, however, Smith allows humor to seep in. In one scene, a Crown Heights Lubavitcher woman tells of the time her small child flipped on the radio during Sabbath, when Orthodox Jews are not allowed to turn electrical appliances on or off. She had to go get a young black kid off the street to turn it off.
Smith, Stanford university professor, playwright, and actress (you may have seen her in The American President as the White House press secretary), received an Obie for Fires in the Mirror, which was runner up for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize.
Arizona Theatre Company's production of Fires in the Mirror continues with performances through January 27 at the Alice Holsclaw Theatre, Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets are $17-$26. For reservations call 622-2823. For more information call 884-4877. By Design, a free, interactive panel discussion focusing on race, class and cultural conflict, meets at 7 p.m. Monday, January 22, in the Alice Holsclaw Theatre.
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