Crown Heights, Brooklyn, may have been a fast-gentrifying province of Hipsterville for the past decade, but 30 years ago it was still an affordable community populated largely by working-class Black Americans and recent immigrants from Caribbean nations. It was then, and remains today, the world capital of the Chabad-Lubavitch dynasty of Hasidic Judaism. Tensions among Crown Heights’ various constituencies exploded into several nights of rioting in August of 1991, after a vehicle in a Lubavitch leader’s motorcade ran a red light and struck two 7-year-old Guyanese-American boys, killing one of them. Hours after the accident, a group of young Black men stabbed a rabbinical scholar on the street in what was widely inferred as retaliation for the death of Gavin Cato, the child who died in the vehicle collision.
Nine months later, Black, Baltimore-born playwright and actor Anna Deavere Smith first performed Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities. Her solo show that attempted to make sense of the tragedy and spotlight how a neighborhood can be both shared and divided.
To produce the show, Deavere Smith conducted scores of interviews with participants, witnesses, and cultural observers from the Black and Jewish communities, as well as outsiders. Her subjects ranged in notoriety from the Rev. Al Sharpton to “Anonymous Young Man No. 2.” Deavere Smith wove together a series of roughly 25 brief monologues that together offer a sort of panorama of the events that transpired in Crown Heights that August.
Deavere Smith has pioneered this format, known as “verbatim theatre,” where a playwright constructs a story using real people’s words, and she returns to it periodically to interrogate thorny subjects. In fact, the 1992 Los Angeles riots—sparked by the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers who’d been caught on video beating motorist Rodney King—happened the same week Smith opened Fires in the Mirror 2,500 miles east in New York City; she’d go on to cover the larger and deadlier L.A. riots in a similarly formatted, one-woman stage play in 1994. She also performed her solo show about America’s dysfunctional health-care system, Let Me Down Easy, at Arena Stage in 2011.
Whether verbatim theatre is more useful in investigating a social tragedy than, say, a documentary film or oral history of the event, is an intriguing question. Do we gain a deeper understanding or have a stronger emotional response to an event when the reportage is itself a performance? (Smith’s original Fires in the Mirror was filmed and broadcast as an episode of American Playhouse on public television in 1993.)
Theater J’s 30-years-later version of Fires in the Mirror, co-directed by outgoing Theater J head Adam Immerwahr and January LaVoy, who also stars, complicates the question by removing another point of connection to material. LaVoy is clearly a versatile and persuasive actor—capably inhabiting the show’s approximately two dozen nonfictional characters—but she is not the artist who conducted these interviews and stitched them into a script. (Michael Benjamin Washington took over for Smith in Fires in the Mirror’s 2019 New York revival; while a production in Milwaukee that same year split the monologues between two female actors, one Jewish and one Black.) The script has not been updated; it’s the same text Smith used for the original performance. But today’s production is one of the rare instances where the fluid impermanence of live theater might be regarded more as a bug than as a feature.
And it’s profoundly different than a new actor inheriting the role of Heidi Schreck in Schreck’s autobiographical solo show What the Constitution Means to Me. Schreck’s case is an example of a performer’s representation of her own life, which was then passed on to another actor. But Smith was never playing herself; she was playing a selection of people she sought out, observed, and interviewed. While most of the subjects she identifies in the script are alive today, it’s unclear if LaVoy ever met those people.
“Impression” is not a word any actor portraying a real, living person likes to hear, but when they’re covering two dozen roles of various genders, races, and, ages (complete with lickety-split costume changes) in a 100-minute performance, the effect is inevitably more one of novelty than of exploration. It’s the event—the riots—that’s being investigated here; not the play’s (nonfictional) characters. A projected photograph and a caption identifies each new speaker on a video screen behind LaVoy. She never leaves the stage for more than a few seconds, reappearing with new vocal cadence, a new gait, and new props right down to the chicken wing sauce that one character dribbles onto his shirt. The precision of her changes, along with the lighting, sound, and projections (which includes a scenic charge artist, a credit I’ve never seen before) are all impressive technical elements of the show.
But why revisit this generation-old history at all? Does Fires in the Mirror have the same sturdy legs that, say, The Laramie Project, a later specimen of verbatim theatre that’s been performed all over, carries? Every available sociological metric would seem to indicate that Laramie, Wyoming, has changed less in the 24 years since the violent tragedy that the play investigates—the torture and murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard—than Crown Heights has in the 31 years since the riots. Three decades later, however, Theater J promises the solo show is something every American can relate to, “regardless of race, color, or beliefs.”
What gives Fires in the Mirror currency today, even as the uprising it investigates has been largely overwritten in our memory by fresher calamities, is that Deavere Smith takes her time to immerse the audience in the milieu of Crown Heights as it was in the late ’80s and early ’90s. She barely addresses the traffic accident or the violence that followed until the show’s second half. One monologue from Los Angeles rapper Monique “Big Mo” Matthews takes aim at misogyny in late-1980s hip-hop. Another captures a Jewish schoolteacher whose baby accidentally turned on her radio during Shabbat. The woman asks a young Black boy passing by to turn off the radio for her because, as an observant Jew, she can’t do it herself during Shabbat. The woman says with a laugh, “He probably thought, ‘And people say Jewish people are really smart and they don’t know how to turn off their radios.’” These gentle observations of how people are different foreshadow the conflict to come, and that doesn’t have an expiration date.
Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities, written and originally performed by Anna Deavere Smith, co-directed by Adam Immerwahr and January LaVoy and performed by LaVoy, plays at Theater J, and is available to stream online, through July 3. theaterj.org. $50–$75.