Burning questions about community are raised in 'Fires'

June 20, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Anna Deavere Smith shows us a world at the edges of its sanity, where people shriek at each other but no one seems to hear. So they go off to their isolated little apartments and mutter dark conspiracies behind locked doors, and invent antagonisms that take on a life of their own, and some of them lose their minds in the process, and still nobody listens.

Smith listened. She went to the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, which sometimes seems like a suburb of hell, and committed an act of journalism. She found people who inhabit the same smelly, teeming, overcrowded urban turf, but insist on living in disconnected worlds, where suspiciousness festers.

She listened to their anger, some of it justified and some of it lunatic, some of it the echo of any big American city and some of it the sickest of political opportunism, and she attempted to pull out pieces that reflect a community with its nerve endings exposed. Then she turned the act of journalism into a piece of theater.

Smith's one-woman play, "Fires in the Mirror," runs through Sunday at Center Stage.

It's about black people and Jewish people, fringes of the American mosaic who share the outsiders' sense of spiritual isolation but find no comfort or common ground in their mutual disconnectedness.

Go back to the evening of Aug. 19, 1991. A station wagon carrying Lubavitcher Jews swerves into two black children at play, killing a 7-year-old named Gavin Cato. Three hours later and five blocks away, Yankel Rosenbaum, a Hasidic history professor visiting from Australia, is stabbed to death, allegedly by a 16-year-old black youth. By dawn the next day, the residents of Crown Heights are at each other's throats.

"Fires in the Mirror" is slightly misnamed. The mirror has been shattered, and instead of a broad, expansive reflection of Crown Heights, Smith picks random, jagged pieces out of the street.

Sometimes it feels like all edge, no center. Sometimes it's theatrical heat but not light: A black youth invents a Jewish-police conspiracy, based on the Israeli flag and New York cop cars having the same blue and white colors. Sometimes, uncomfortably, the voices sound a little too close to home: This city braces itself for a mayoral campaign in which race is already being manipulated.

Smith, 44, grew up in Baltimore and graduated from Western High School at a moment that now threatens to retreat from all memory. There were blacks and whites who not only shared her world, but many who still thought they could work things out, still thought they might learn from each other instead of merely blaming each other.

"Fires in the Mirror" says we've taken a wrong turn, and look where it's gotten us. We don't know each other any more, and out of not knowing comes distance and suspiciousness and people in power taking advantage of this when it suits them.

In "Fires," a Jewish woman named Roslyn Malamud says, "I don't love my neighbors. I don't know my black neighbors. There's one lady on President Street, Claire, I adore her. She's my girlfriend's next-door neighbor. I've had a manicure done in her house and we sit and kibitz and stuff, but I don't know them.

"We don't mingle socially because of the difference of food and religion and what have you here. But the people in this community want exactly what I want out of life. They want to live in nice homes. They all go to work. They want to send their kids to college. They want to live a nice quiet life. They wanna shop for their groceries and cook their meals and go to their Sunday picnics. They just want to have decent homes and decent lives. The people who came to riot here were brought here by this famous Rev. Al Sharpton, which I'd like to know who ordained him?"

Sharpton's in the play.

He's there talking about his hair, and then does a second turn in which he takes a community's pain and manipulates it for every TV camera he can find. The play makes him no hero.

In Crown Heights, heroic figures were in short supply.

"Fires in the Mirror" leaves us with uncomfortable questions hanging in the air: Must each of us live strictly inside our separate communities, or is there still time to find common ground? Do we continue to look for strangers to blame or, finally, do we gaze in the shattered mirror and find pieces of ourselves?

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