She pioneered a new form of theater by imitating dozens of New Yorkers who played roles in the anti-Jewish riots in Crown Heights. In “Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities,” Anna Deavere Smith brilliantly embodied both black and Jewish subjects, from the Rev. Al Sharpton to Lubavitch Rabbi Shea Hecht.
Now, two decades after the violence, a group of students at Long Island University in Brooklyn is reviving the play. At a time when the Trayvon Martin case and other incidents of racial violence are again dominating the headlines, “Fires in the Mirror” gleams for a new generation. Directed by Misti Wills, the play opens Tuesday night for a short run at Long Island University’s Kumble Theater for the Performing Arts.
When “Fires in the Mirror” opened at the Public Theater in 1992, Smith wowed critics and audiences alike with her prodigious gifts for mimicry. She went on to create other notable works in the same vein, including “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” based on the civil unrest that erupted after the acquittal of the police officers in the Rodney King case, and “Let Me Down Easy,” focusing on the healthcare system; the latter is currently showing in a televised version on PBS.
The Crown Heights violence of August 1991 was touched off when Gavin Cato, an 8-year old black boy, the son of Guyanese immigrants, was struck and killed by a van driven by Yosef Lifsh, a chasidic Jew whose vehicle was part of a motorcade accompanying Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Several hours later, a visiting rabbinical student from Australia, Yankel Rosenbaum, was the victim of a revenge killing by an African American involved in the riot that ensued. The three days of anti-Jewish rioting ended only when 1,200 police officers were dispatched by Mayor David Dinkins to quell the violence, which mayoral candidate Rudolph Giuliani later famously called a “pogrom.”
John Sannuto coordinates the theater program at LIU. He told The Jewish Week that the play enables the students to “inhabit the shoes of different people, and to learn that everyone’s got a heart and a soul.” He quoted a line in the play in which one of the characters realizes that everyone in the neighborhood wears a hat, according to his or her religion and culture.
While the university is only four subway stops from Crown Heights, Wills realized that many of the students had never visited that neighborhood. She ended up not just taking the actors on field trips there, but actually filming some of the monologues on location; those film clips are integrated into the production. In addition, Wills’ production (which is designed by April Bartlett, the art director on NBC’s Today Show), uses a fire hydrant as a central symbol, based on the fire hydrants in Crown Heights; denizens of Crown Heights still attach balloons to the neighborhood’s fire hydrants in remembrance of those who died in the violence.
Wills and her students were especially moved to discover that Yankel Rosenbaum’s brother and Gavin Cato’s father are now friends. In the play’s final image, the two men come downstage, and each unties a balloon from a fire hydrant and lets it go. “They were both losers,” Wills noted, “but if they can find a common thread, then surely there’s hope for the rest of us.”
“Fires in the Mirror” runs through March 31 at Kumble Theater, on Flatbush Avenue between DeKalb Avenue and Willoughby Street. Performances are Tuesday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday at noon and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m. For tickets ($10, $5 for seniors), call the box office at (718) 488-1624.