Fires in the Mirror” is one gifted artist’s breathtaking response to a tragedy that tore New York apart in the summer of 1991. In adapting her show for TV, Anna Deveare Smith and director George C. Wolfe have made significant changes, but the effect is the same: a profoundly moving performance that at once humanizes terrible events and transcends them, offering, if not hope for healing, at least a wider understanding.
The story began unfolding on Aug. 19, when a car driven by a Hasidic Jewish man swerved out of control on a street in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, accidentally killing a black 7-year-old, Gavin Cato, and seriously injuring his cousin Angela.
Three hours later, in another part of the district, a group of black youths set upon and stabbed a lone Australian-born rabbinical student, Yankel Rosenbaum , who later bled to death awaiting treatment at a local hospital.
In the days that followed, Crown Heights, long a tinderbox of tension between the two groups, exploded, as each side accused the other of prejudice, benefiting from special treatment, and murder.
Smith began interviewing many of the people involved, including such high-profile personalities as the Rev. Al Sharpton, black studies professor Leonard Jeffries, Jewish feminist author Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Rosenbaum’s brother, Norman. She also spent many days among people, Jewish and black, from the area, recording their accounts, perceptions, fears and hopes.
“Fires” is part of a larger series called “On the Road: A Search for American Character,” which Smith will continue in June at the Mark Taper Forum with a piece about the Rodney King trials.
In performance, Smith becomes each character, talking to the invisible interviewer. She is an astonishing impersonator of men and women, blacks and Jews alike; though there is humor in her mastery of dialect and body language, it never seems forced or condescending as she inhabits each character.
But the real power of “Fires” is in the case Smith makes that we cannot separate our perception of events from the context of our own lives. An associate of Islamic minister Louis Farrakhan insists, for example, that while the Nazis’ murder of 6 million Jews indeed offended God, it doesn’t compare with the 300-year experience of slavery.
The monologue is followed by author Pogrebin reading from her book, “Deborah, Golda and Me,” a heartbreaking account of an uncle chosen by his town elders to survive the Holocaust at any cost in order to bear witness to the events — a designation that forces him to send friends, neighbors and his wife and two children to their deaths.
The original staging at the Joseph Papp Public Theater of “Fires” was by Christopher Ashley. This adaptation condenses some monologues and drops others entirely.
Wolfe has added some documentary material, including news footage from the events in Crown Heights, and a vibrant soundtrack mixing an original score that combines elements of klezmer and free jazz with the street sounds of Crown Heights.
There are a few quibbles: seeing some of the actual subjects intrudes upon Smith’s masterful illusion, and at one point there is some gratuitous crosscutting between a couple of monologues.
But these are only quibbles; Wolfe’s talents keep expanding to fit whatever venue or medium he’s working in, and his choices here respect and even embellish Smith’s work.
“Fires in the Mirror,” deservedly a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama, is unforgettable theater; it makes for television that’s every bit as memorable.