Anna Deavere Smith brings Crown Heights to Baltimore F

June 11, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

When Baltimore native Anna Deavere Smith was creating "Fires in the Mirror," her acclaimed show about tensions between blacks and Jews in Brooklyn, N.Y., she was reminded of "the power of my experience as a young woman at Western High School, meeting Jewish women and having the opportunity to meet their parents and particularly their grandparents."

So her interviews with the people in Brooklyn's Crown Heights section "had a lot of resonance for me," she explains. "Even though I was talking about difficult things, something about it was very comfortable."

The "difficult things" concern the Crown Heights riots that broke out in August 1991, after a 7-year-old black boy was accidentally killed by a runaway car in the motorcade of a Hasidic rabbi. Three hours later, a Jewish scholar visiting from Australia was stabbed to death in apparent retaliation.

For her one-woman show, "Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities," Smith interviewed 50 participants in and observers of the riots. On stage, she transforms herself into about half of those people -- ranging from Hasidic housewives to the Rev. Al Sharpton -- using verbatim transcripts of the interviews.

This chameleon-like tour de force, which she accomplishes with the aid of only a few props, was hailed by the New York Times as "the most compelling and sophisticated view of urban racial and class conflict, up to date to this week, that one could hope to encounter in a swift 90 minutes."

Since the 1992 New York debut of the show -- which won the the Obie Award and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist -- Smith has taken it across the country and from London to Melbourne, Australia.

On Tuesday, "Fires in the Mirror" begins a two-week run as part of Center Stage's Off Center series. It will be Smith's first professional performance in her hometown.

"Fires" is part of a project this 44-year-old actress, writer and Stanford University professor has been working on for more than a dozen years called "On the Road: A Search for American Character." The latest installment, "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," was based on the riots that followed the acquittal of four police officers accused of beating Rodney King. A 1993 Tony nominee, "Twilight" led Newsweek to describe Smith as "the most exciting individual in American theater right now."

Center Stage artistic director Irene Lewis says she chose to bring "Fires" here, however, because it has "much bigger reverberations for our community" -- a feeling that will be explored in discussions after several performances.

Smith's sense of these reverberations dates back to the late 1960s, when her middle-class family moved from West Baltimore to the then-mixed black-Jewish neighborhood of Forest Park. Though she says Forest Park was "nothing like Crown Heights," with its Hasidic and Caribbean populations, she acknowledges that "my journey in 'Fires in the Mirror' had a lot to do with trying to reclaim the black-Jewish experience I'd had as a young woman in Baltimore."

Asked if she has found a difference between black-Jewish relations and black-white relations, she responds: "To some extent I think the Jewish-black relationship is the theater for race relations in America. It expresses a lot about race relations because other groups don't come forward. . . . We tend to be the two having the dialogue. We're basically doing the work for everyone else."

One of Smith's Jewish friends from her youth was Gail Castleman, a classmate at both Garrison Junior High and Western High School. "Neither of us looked at each other as a black-white issue. We were buddies," says Castleman, now a hearings and regulations coordinator for the Maryland State Department of the Environment. "We grew up together. We lived a block away. I found her totally captivating as a kid."

After school, she recalls, Smith would often come to her house, where she could see Castleman's step-grandmother speaking Yiddish and making gefilte fish from scratch. "Anna was absorbing it all," Castleman says.

She also remembers Smith doing impersonations, like the ones in her shows, when they were at school together. "It's kind of deja vu because she used to do it all the time," she says. "She was the theater maven. She could imitate anybody and do anything."

For her part, Smith -- the oldest of five children -- believes some of her theatrical impulses stem from her parents, even though neither worked in theater professionally. Her mother is a retired elementary school principal, and her father, Deaver Y. Smith Jr., who died in April, was a retired insurance claims adjuster and also ran the coffee and tea business founded by her grandfather in 1906.

Smith was inspired by her mother's storytelling (which she learned to imitate even before she could read) and her father's "incredible love of conversation" and fascination with what she calls "unanswerable questions."

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