Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities

A Full Length Play by Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith

Slaven Vlasic / Getty Images

In 1991 a young black boy, Gavin Cato was crushed when a Hasidic Jewish man drove his car onto a curb. Confusion and passions get in the way of the bystanders, family and media in search of the truth of the situation. Later that same day, a group of malcontent black men find a Hasidic Jewish man in another part of the town and stab him multiple times. The man, Yankel Rosenbaum from Australia, later died from his wounds. These events ignited long-held racist beliefs in both the Hasidic Jewish community and the Black community of the Crown Heights neighborhood and surrounding areas.

Playwright Anna Deavere Smith was inspired by these events and she gathered interviews from every person who would grant her one. She recorded and compiled the interviews and created monologues taken verbatim from the interviewee’s words. The result was Fires in the Mirror, a play containing the voices of 26 characters delivered via 29 monologues.

Performer Anna Deavere Smith then used her own script and performed all 26 characters. She recreated the voices, mannerisms, and physicality of everyone from a Lubavitcher pre-school teacher to poet and playwright Ntozake Shange to Reverend Al Sharpton. (Click here to view the PBS production of her play in full make up and costumes.)

In this play, Smith examines the cultural positions of both communities as well as public figures’ responses and the effects of the resulting riots on the neighborhood and families of those involved. Smith took it upon herself to hold up a mirror to her audience and let them see the reflection of another person’s experience and the collective perspectives communicated through her achingly honest play. She wrote a similar play that explores the aftermath of riots entitled Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. Both plays are examples of a genre of theater called Verbatim Theater.

Production Details

Set: Bare stage with the ability for projected images

Time: 1991

Cast size: This play was originally written to be performed by one woman, but the publisher indicates that flexible casting is an option.

Content Issues: Language, Culture, Anger

Roles

  • Ntozake Shange - Playwright, poet, and novelist
  • Anonymous Lubavitcher Woman
  • George C. Wolfe - Playwright, director and producing director of the New York Shakespeare Fesitival.
  • Aaron M. Bernstein - Physicist at MIT
  • Anonymous Girl
  • Reverend Al Sharpton
  • Rivkah Siegal
  • Angela Davis - Professor in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
  • Monique “Big Mo” Matthews- L.A. rapper
  • Leonard Jeffries- Professor of African American Studies at City University of New York
  • Letty Cottin Pogrebin - Author of Deborah, Golda, and Me, Being Female and Jewish in America, and founding editor of Ms. Magazine
  • Minister Conrad Mohammed
  • Robert Sherman- Director and Mayor of the City of New York’s Increase the Peace Corps
  • Rabbi Joseph Spielman
  • The Reverend Cannon Doctor Heron Sam
  • Anonymous Young Man #1
  • Michael S. Miller - Executive Director at the Jewish Community Relations Council
  • Henry Rice
  • Norman Rosenbaum - Brother of Yankel Rosenbaum, a barrister from Australia
  • Anonymous Young Man #2
  • Sonny Carson
  • Rabbi Shea Hecht
  • Richard Green - Director, Crown Heights Youth Collective, co-director Project CURE, a Black-Hasidic basketball team formed after the riots
  • Roslyn Malamud
  • Reuven Ostrov
  • Carmel Cato - Father of Gavin Cato, Crown Heights resident, originally from Guyana

Production rights for Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities are held by Dramatists Play Service, Inc.