“Fires” in a crowded theater

Anna Deavere Smith's incendiary "Fires in the Mirror" packs dozens of characters into a one-person show about ethnic strife in 1990s Brooklyn.

At one point, amid the mosaic of testimonials and commentaries that make up Anna Deavere Smith’s play Fires in the Mirror, Leonard Jeffries, a professor of African American studies at City University of New York, talks about his tangential involvement in Alex Haley’s novel turned TV miniseries Roots, one of the biggest cultural phenomena of the 1970s. “Isn’t Roots wonderful?!,” Jeffries recalls the actor Lorne Greene saying to him. “It’s everyone’s history!”

Jeffries doesn’t even have to voice his disgust with Greene’s statement. As a scholar with an Afrocentric worldview, he’s invested in the particulars of Roots as a story about Africans; to claim that experience as common property is both a whitewashing and a theft. And of course he’s right.

But then, Lorne Greene — despite being best known as a paragon of mainstream American whiteness on Bonanzawas the son of Russian Jews. A story of slavery and of a distressed diaspora is his history. And considering that the history of slavery is the indissoluble contaminant of the American democratic experiment, a ghost haunting the entire American experience, maybe Greene was right in the larger sense as well.

Fires in the Mirroronstage through Oct. 21 in a riveting production by Profile Theatre —  doesn’t make these pretzels of perspective explicit, but they’re there. Confirming expectations one moment, challenging prejudices the next, confounding certitude throughout, the play is an exercise in compulsory open-mindedness. Which might not be empathy, exactly, but it helps.

Seth Rue as physicist Aaron M. Bernstein, one of 26 characters he portrays in “Fires in the Mirror.” Photo: David Kinder

Smith’s subject isn’t slavery or persecution; rather it is the contrasts, contradictions and confluence of black and Jewish experience, as seen through the prism of the Crown Heights riot, which convulsed that Brooklyn neighborhood in 1991. A car in the motorcade of a Hasidic Jewish leader veered onto the sidewalk, killing a seven-year-old boy, the son of Guyanese immigrants. Confusion and rumors helped ignite long-simmering frustrations between blacks and Jews in the area. Three days of riots resulted, including the killing of a Jewish doctoral student visiting from Australia.

Smith interviewed dozens of area residents to create the verbatim monologues that make up Fires in the Mirror, a finalist for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for drama (losing to Angels in America). We hear from poets and professors, rappers and rabbis, teachers and teenagers, all portrayed by a single actor, in this case Seth Rue, performing with a remarkable blend of plasticity and heart.

With help from dialect coach Mary McDonald-Lewis and character coach Robi Arce — and not much more in the way of props or costume additions than a scarf and a bow tie — Rue creates vivid, crisply delineated characters of many sorts. He sketches the attitude of the writer Ntozake Shange with a hand on a cocked left hip, words coming in rhythmic feints and rushes. As the director George C. Wolfe, he’s doubly voluble, talking quickly with mouth and hands. His Rev. Al Sharpton sits with feet splayed wide, suggest the necessary room for both a belly and an ego. And so on. Granted, the accents of Jewish women, however credible, aren’t quite so clearly varied; but he’s terrific at the nuances of the black American dialects, and the distinctions between Caribbeans and Africans.

Talking loud and saying nothing: Al Sharpton (played by Seth Rue) discusses James Brown amid the cultural kaleidoscope of “Fires in the Mirror.” Photo: David Kinder

Director Bobby Bermea (also an occasional ArtsWatch contributor) marshals those performance resources along with smartly supportive design work from Peter Ksander (set and video), Carl Faber (lighting), Casi Pacilio (sound) and Jana Crenshaw (composition) to give the piece an impressive sense of flow and unity. Seldom is it a compliment to say that a show feels longer than it actually is (an intermission-free 90-some minutes, in this case), but this production is so packed with fascinating characters, issues, emotions, etc. that it feels too filling to have passed quickly.

Smith’s script eases us into the upheaval, starting with benign observations from the respective cultures, but soon the lines of ethnic division start to emerge, along with shifting, conflicting descriptions of the riot’s precipitating events. Along with the the factual ambiguity of the case,  the kaleidoscope of viewpoints reveals a tendency on both sides to argue from an ingrained sense of grievance, to weigh one history of oppression against the other (for instance, comparing the horrors and losses of the Holocaust to those of the slave trade’s Middle Passage). You might think both cultures have a persecution complex, but — to quote from a documentary by the great British Jewish historian Simon Schama — “The Jewish imagination is paranoia, confirmed by history,” and the same might be said for the black American mind today.

What Smith’s work of journalistic drama makes clear is that the focus on comparative injustice merely adds to the compound tragedy.

Or, in the words of one Jewish resident, “What happened was an accident, and it was allowed to fester.”

In the end, Fires in the Mirror feels like everyone’s history, in that it is a complex grappling with confounding events, a kind of history from which everyone might learn.

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